Thursday, June 26, 2014

Life hit the fan

I haven't found time to write lately, but I've been feeling the need to reach out to my community, if only online, to describe how things have been.

Over the past few years, while I feel like my mosaic skills have grown by leaps and bounds, commissions had dropped to only a few small projects each year.  I did a lot of presenting and exhibiting, but gallery sales were extremely rare, and it actually costs a lot to do these shows, and I was basically doing my work at Mike's expense.  So, we had made a plan that, if within about 2 years I wasn't earning some surplus income, I would get a job with a paycheck.  Since I've been teaching at the high school on Fridays, I thought I might work toward a job in the school system, but in the meantime, I would give the mosaic business my best effort.

And then I got a call from a colleague, asking if I would be interested in taking over a fabrication account with a large company.  This company installs lovely mosaic floors in all of their stores, and an occasional mosaic mural.  She warned me that it could be very difficult work with short deadlines, but that it would be steady income.  I decided to go for it, thinking this could be the "job" I needed to support my art business.  But, I could still be in the studio, working on my own schedule, still tending the garden and animals and being there for my 11-year-old (because, I don't know how my friends manage when there are so many school late-starts and holidays, and kids get sick and have doctor appointments, etc.)  I was very excited about this new opportunity.

Then, my first commission for the company came in with an insanely short deadline, so that I had only four days to complete an 11 square foot marble floor, which took over 50 hours.  And at the same time, a very difficult family crisis took place, so that I was also caring for a family member on top of child care, farm maintenance, and packing for a big trip to Oaxaca.
This is an example of the floor mosaics, with the company name cropped out.

Since then, I've completed six floors for this company, between 11 and 16 square feet, each one on a short deadline.  So far, with every single one, there have been problems with shipping that have cost me extra money, caused delays for the contractors, and have brought me to tears.  When I get a contract, I spend about 5 days bent over a work table, hand-cutting marble for 10-12 hours per day, and the requests are coming in faster and faster.

I tried to quit after a recent fiasco where the largest floor yet arrived at the job site with a whole section missing.  When I had it picked up to return for repair, the shipment disappeared for six days, delaying the project even further.  It has finally made its way back to me, and I'm currently in the process of reconstructing the missing section.  The company has urged me to continue contracting with them, offering to pay extra for solid wood crates.  So, now I have a makeshift wood shop in my driveway where I'm attempting to build crates until I can find a better solution.

Meanwhile, I have only been fully paid for the first project, completed in March.  And the crisis with a family member has continued, and while this has a much bigger impact on my life and emotional state than my work, it is too personal to go into publicly.  (Those friends I've seen in person know all about it and I owe you all my sanity for letting me unload.)

I just wanted to explain why I've been a bit removed and subdued lately.  The garden is still going, and Mike has taken on more of the work.  The animals are all managing, and Anouk is getting old enough to help more with them.  My bookkeeping and studio are both a mess, and I don't have much time for more inspired mosaic projects these days, but I do get an occasional break between projects, waiting for the materials to get here, and I relish that time.  And, when those payments finally start rolling in, I think I will find new enthusiasm and appreciation for this work.  I don't have to wonder how I'm going to pay for my trip to Philadelphia next year for the American Mosaic Summit, where I'll finally see the work of Isaiah Zagar in person!  I'm seriously considering buying a top-of-the-line saw that will allow me to custom cut just about any material.  And, if all goes as planned, I'll do fabrication for this company for a year or two, and find myself with some very good experience to make my business profitable moving forward.

(And, if any of my friends want to make a trip out to my place this summer, I can't stop working, but I can certainly visit while I work, and would appreciate the company.  Just saying.)

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


Anouk is turning 11 on Friday, so I thought I would write about her, especially for friends and family who don't see us very often.  I feel like this has been a good year for Anouk.  Some of you might know that she went through a tough transition in 3rd grade.  She had tragically lost the awesome cat that had been by her side since infancy.  We had re-homed the crazy young dog that had killed the beloved cat.  Her grandma lost a battle with cancer and the summer had been spent settling the estate.  And then she switched to a new school in the Fall.  She developed anxiety and those who were close to us saw that she had a very hard time enjoying herself.  She always felt left out, even when she wasn't.  She hated school, didn't feel like she had friends, and she only wanted to be home with both parents and all of her pets at all times.

So, if you remember that, you might be as surprised as I was to find out that she is now a "class clown."  It actually said, "She's a hoot!" on her first report card of the year, and her teacher described her as being very well-liked and hilarious at school.  (The down side is that she has a hard time focusing on her work, and can be a distraction for others.)

Anouk loves her tight group of school friends dearly, and tries to spend as much time as possible with them (or on the phone, or chatting online.)  She is also still very attached to her Olympia friends, though she only sees them occasionally.  She thinks of them as family.  Anouk loves little kids, and lucky for her, most of her friends have young siblings.  And she adores animals, and is always trying to get us to take on more and more and more.  She has 2 ferrets and a ball python in her tiny room, where the cats and dogs also like to cram in.

She still loves pandas and hot pink.  She has been dying pink streaks into her hair for many years.  Anouk is really good at putting funky outfits together with 80s and anime influences.  Speaking of anime, she's been reading and drawing manga for a couple of years now and is trying to teach herself Japanese using Google translate.

Anouk is also trying to learn Spanish from her two closest friends who speak Spanish at home, and she is wholeheartedly claiming her 1/4-Mexican heritage as her identity.  She's the palest Mexican-American you'll meet.

Anouk is very stubborn at home, but pleasant and polite with others.  If she doesn't want to do or eat something, she will dig her feet in deep.  And if she wants something, she's tenacious.  When I'm at my most frustrated, I try to remind myself that these will be good, strong qualities when she's an adult.  She's a girl who knows what she wants and won't settle for less.  Combined with her sense of humor and empathetic nature, she's becoming a pretty awesome person.

Wow.  Eleven years.  This is the year when some big changes start happening.  I won't have a little girl much longer!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Holiday goat woes.

It has been a long time since I've done a farm update.  Nothing very interesting or unusual has happened over this past year, and I started a new, art-specific blog to make the writing more cogent.  I'll stick to homesteading and sustainability topics here, with some travel and family updates.

This holiday season has been unusual for us, though, because it was wrought with pet crises, mainly of the goat variety.  First, right before the break, I noticed our oldest goat, Pan, just didn't look right.  He was standing awkwardly, looking skinny and rickety.  Something in his face was different.  His luster was gone.  But, he was still friendly and affable, and was eating fine.

This is Pan at about age 2.  He was only 3 months older than my daughter.
But, over the next few days, he grew weaker.  Soon, he was lying down, and I wrapped a blanket around him, hand-fed him, and sat with him as often as I could.  Pan was one of our first goats, and the other passed away several years ago.  He was a whether, and the friendliest, most lovable goat I've ever met.  He knew his name, and always came running when called.  He tolerated mishandling by Anouk through her toddler years and even let her ride on him.  But he would have been 11 this spring, and he had lived a good, long goat life.  After two days of lying down, still animated and eating, and showing no signs of discomfort, I found him dead the day before Christmas break.  We started off the holidays with a big loss.  The barn isn't the same without Pan.

But then, on Christmas eve, I found our newest 10-month-old billy lying on his side, crying, and unable to move.  I scooped him up and took him straight to the house.  Mike and I tended to him in our bathroom, squirting baby goat formula into his mouth with a syringe a little at a time.  We noticed that his fur was full of hay grain, making it (and him) appear thicker than he was.  He also has a thick undercoat that the other goats don't have.  (Mike is convinced that he's a Pygmy and not a Nigerian.)  As we brushed and picked the grains out, we could feel that he was very, very bony.  He slowly regained composure, and was soon back on his feet, acting normal.  We gave him a dose of wormer, some aspirin, and kept him in the bathroom overnight to monitor him, then put him back into the barn, separated from the others.
This is Thorin last summer.  We bought him to breed with our females in hopes of milking this spring.
He seemed a bit weak, but ok, so I just kept giving him extras like veggies and formula, and he spent the night in the barn.  By the way, we were experiencing some unusually cold weather, and it's possible that the low temps affected our weaker goats.  But, the next evening, Christmas Eve, I took a break from cooking a holiday dinner to close up the coop and barn, and I found Thorin out in the goat yard on his side, head arched back, crying weakly and limp.  Again, I rushed him indoors, but this time, he was much worse.  Liquid was dribbling from his mouth, his eyes were half closed, breathing was quick and shallow, and he couldn't even lift his head.  Also, he was bloated, and obviously in pain.  Meanwhile, my dad was arriving and dinner needed to be finished.

We set up a bed for Thorin and kept checking on him.  The stinky gases slowly escaped from his insides, and he deflated.  Then he regained some strength.  We were able to get some formula into him.  And suddenly, he was standing again and acting normal.  We were flummoxed, but relieved that he was not dying after all.
Goat fains dying in order to sleep in the house.
We were doing frantic internet searches, I blind-emailed random goat owners I found online, and we just kept feeding him what we had on hand.  The first day stores were open, we both went on separate hunts for mineral supplements, selenium, and advice.  We came home with vitamins, electrolytes, and goat treats.  And he is slowly getting better.  Our best guess is that he either had a selenium deficiency, which can cause weakness in the legs, or that the older, bigger goats were preventing him access to the feed, and that he was actually starving.  I hate that option, because I feel awful that I overlooked it until he had lost all muscle tissue in his legs.

But, he has always been very shy, and doesn't like being handled.  So, I haven't pushed him.  After all of the special attention he's been getting for over a week now, he is our little baby.  He's wearing a modified sweatshirt and has a buffet of yummy, nutritious food laid out in his area, with a cushy bed and heat lamp.  If anything positive has come out of this, it's that I learned a lot about goat nutrition and this billy will be much friendlier than he would have been otherwise.

Finally, the other night, our new dog, Bilbo, got into the dog food and overate so severely that he had to be rushed to the emergency vet clinic.  His stomach was stretched to 5 times the normal size and was in danger of rupturing.  He had to be kept overnight and given injections to induce vomiting.  He is finally back to normal, but still on medication to help his tummy heal.  And we had to cancel a trip to visit friends for the holidays.

So, that's what we did over the holidays!  

Monday, September 9, 2013

Summer 2013 in review...

This was a particularly delicious summer in Western Washington.  The weather was perfect and our garden continues to produce the most abundant harvest we've ever experienced.  I have tomato plants in my greenhouse that grew to 10 feet, then fell over and kept growing (they are wound around supports, growing horizontally.)  The garage freezer is packed with berries and veggies and the countertops are piled with tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, with daily containers of beets, carrots, string beans, and more waiting to be used or preserved.  All of the farm animals are thriving on peels, seeds and foliage leftover from each day's harvest.  It's a lot of work, but it will pay off this winter when I only need to grab organic, homegrown food from the freezer instead of buying it from a store.

In the meantime, I have been reflecting on all of the art activities I participated in over the past three months. There was the invitational Bathers of the Sun, Bathers of the Moon 3-person show at B2 Fine Art Gallery in Tacoma.  The opening reception was very nice, with live Flamenco dancing and a lovely crowd.  I completed my re-working of the Blue Moon mosaic (mentioned in a spring post) in time for this show:
Blue Moon, stained glass on wedi, 16" x 22"
My mosaic portrait of my daughter eating an apple at Mardi Gras was featured in a juried exhibit called "Being Human" in Issaquah.
Fascinator - stained glass on wood cabinet door with Mardi Gras swag.
I led several mosaic activities over the summer.  The first was with a group of 60 participants at a Presbyterian church in Olympia.  I've never taught more than 10 people at once, so I was very nervous going in.  However, everyone had a blast and all of the little cross mosaic projects turned out great.  I most enjoyed the young children, who added glass pieces, found objects and beads with reckless abandon.  They didn't get hung up on composition or perfect placement, and the results were really fun.

The second event was at my daughter's 4H camp, where I put out wooden picture frames, scrap glass, and glue.  Kids from 3rd grade and up glued glass to their frames and filled the gaps with glitter.  (There was no time for grouting with either workshop.)  I forgot my camera that day, so no photos, unfortunately.

In August, I led an event through the City of Auburn Parks and Rec department, which I wrote about in its own blog recently.  I delivered that finished mural on Thursday, and they have decided to mount it on a wall inside of the General Administration Building at eye level.  They are very happy with their new artwork.

I had one commission over summer, which was also delivered recently to the new owner.  This will be the design for her upcoming book, which should be published for sale in time for the holidays.  I will post more about that when the publishing process is finalized, but here is a sneak peek of her mosaic:
4 dancing women with falling gifts for author Kay Christy
Finally, I had the pleasure of spending four days in Hillsboro, OR with Lynn Adamo.  For two days, I took a hammer & hardie workshop from her, learning to use the tool I had purchased over a year ago.  I look forward to breaking some of my salvaged stone tile, and collecting more organic materials for mosaic in the future.  After the workshop, Richard Davis arrived from Whidbey Island, and Lynn put us to work on her current public art project for Astoria.  It was a great experience to see how Lynn approached her project and to watch her work through some of the challenges faced while I was there.  You can read all about the project at her blog:

Those were all of my official summer art projects, but I also started cleaning out my studio, moving a huge pile of random salvaged tiles outside and thinsetting them to a concrete patio.  Progress has been slow because of other commitments, but if weather holds, I hope to get most of it done this month.  I have a lot of older artwork in storage that I would love to clear out of the studio, so I may do a major studio clearance sale later this Fall, after the studio is reorganized.  I also started a bottle wall, but had to stop to attend to other things.  I will continue work on that this month as well, and post a photo when it is completed.
The beginning of my patio mosaic.  I have a LONG way to go!
My September and October have been filling up fast, as well.  I have some exciting new projects in planning, but I'll write about those another time.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Auburn Community Mosaic Mural

Last spring, I saw a call for art that involved facilitation of an art project for the Auburn Parks & Rec's new "ArtRageous Art Zone."  It hasn't been easy to find opportunities to do more community mosaic since the Artesian Well project, so I submitted a proposal to lead a mural-making project.  The finished product would be donated to a non-profit organization chosen by the City of Auburn.

I received notice that I was approved to lead the project, but I found it difficult to get more information.  Apparently, the ArtRageous Art Zone is a new program, and it was yet to be seen who would come to the planned events.  On various dates throughout summer, entertainment and interactive art projects would be available in Les Gove Park, open to anyone who wanted to participate.  By July, a location for the mural had not been identified for certain, though there is a blank wall on one of the buildings in the park, perfect for mounting the mural, so that was being considered.

My design, therefore, was a simple landscape featuring Mt. Rainier (as seen from Auburn) and some NorthWest-looking plants.  Without knowing how many participants would come or what age range they would be, I decided to try to make it as easy as possible, though it meant a lot more work on my part.  I outlined the mountain and clouds with mirror, and made outlines representing the low mountains at the base of Mt. Rainier.  Then I completed the ferns, leaves and flowers myself, using the boldest shapes I could manage.  After all, the stipend for this project was quite small, and I had a commission with a steep deadline to complete at the same time.  Here is how the mural looked before I took it to Auburn:
3' x 5' mural, prepped and ready for kids to fill in the empty areas.
Sorted scrap stained glass was set out in bins - only 4 colors to keep it very simple.  Two Seattle mosaic artists, Kathryn Henne and Christina Vaule, came to volunteer, and it would have been sheer chaos without them.  As it turned out, the live band that played on a nearby stage was the Roly Poly Guacamoles and most of the kids in the park that day were preschoolers.  We did have a few older kids, but most of the work was done by very little hands who often had a very hard time even understanding that certain colors needed to go in certain areas, let alone how to place pieces so that they fit together nicely.  Thinset was dripping and glopping everywhere, lots of areas had pieces of glass overlapping or pressed together without space for grout, and at least one kid wanted to stack the glass, gluing pieces one on top of another.  It was all I could do to keep up with thinset mixing and going around adjusting and cleaning up areas after they were abandoned by each child.  Most of the kids were from daycare groups, so adults were not able to help them out - which I did not anticipate!  I was very impressed and utterly grateful that Kathryn and Christina were awesome with the kids, showing them how to dab the right amount of thinset onto a piece and strategizing where each piece should go.
Here, two older girls are working independently while Christina gets 3 newcomers set up.

This mom was awesome, making sure her kids followed directions.  
None of us took time to stop and take photos during the busiest part of the day, but we often had kids wrapped all the way around the table, and it was very hard to keep up with all of them.  The lesson I learned is that, in future, I will not be so ambitious.  While I really wanted this project to be a mural, it was mainly out of self-interest.  It will make a nice addition to my portfolio, showing how community mosaic can bring people together and contribute to the beautification of cities within a limited budget.  So, I'm glad I did it, but I now know to only do these large projects in a more controlled environment.  There should be a minimum age or required adult supervision, and possibly advanced sign-up or limited space at the table.  

Earlier in the summer, I did two other group projects.  One was with a church group of 60 participants and I had no volunteers.  But there were parents and grandparents, and the project was a very simple, small mosaic on wood using water-based glue.  Another was similar, but at 4H camp with kids in 3rd grade and up.  Both of these were very successful, low stress, fun for participants, and everyone got to take their project home.  If I had it to do over, I would have done that for the ArtRageous Art Zone.

However, with the help of family, the mural was finished at home over the past couple of weeks.  (I needed unskilled labor so that it would all blend together.)  Today I grouted, and I think it's a very cute mosaic project that, hopefully, will be mounted in Les Gove Park in Auburn, WA sometime this month.  The children who helped create it will be able to see it every time they visit the playground, and point to the area they worked on.  Who knows, maybe they will be able to show it to their own kids someday.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Art auctions can be a humiliating experience for donating artists.

There are many blog posts already written about the many reasons for artists to stop donating to benefit art auctions.  I recommend this one:

But, there is another aspect of the art auction experience that is harder to explain.  I will try.  Something about attending an art auction to which I have donated my artwork is a little bit humiliating.  I think if I were an established artist it would be different, as attendees and organizers may treat those artists with some level of respect.  But as an emerging artist, it can be very uncomfortable.

I've donated to small and large organizations, and each event has a completely different character, but the dynamic of predominately struggling artists donating items of a very personal nature to be bid on by people with discretionary income is the same every time.  Understand first that art is very personal to the artist.  It's like taking your dreams and putting them up for everyone to see and bid on.

Sometimes we are not even invited to the event.  We are not present to meet potential bidders, discuss our process and techniques, or connect with the collector in any way.  The first time I donated to a benefit, that was the case.  I donated a $100 gift certificate toward a commission to support a children's museum, even though I couldn't afford a membership for my own child.  The winning bidder sent me an anonymous email requesting a piece of work at the $100 value.  They did not want me to know their name and requested that I drop off the completed work at the museum so that we wouldn't have to meet in person.  That was rather unsettling.

For several years, I donated to the foundation for my alma mater, and I did get to attend the event.  They never included background information about the artists, so one year, I approached the high bidder of my artwork to introduce myself.  She looked at me like I had just asked what kind of sexual position she prefers and excused herself.  I still wonder why she bought the art?  And who was she?  Artists like to connect with the new owners of their art.

Last year, I donated work of a higher value to a local arts organization.  The required opening bid was for the actual retail value of the piece.  I still have it.  It is disheartening that artists making below minimum wage will donate to a cause, but supporters with solid incomes will usually not match the value.  And it feels really crummy to donate your work for charity, and have it not sell.  I was at the home of a collector one time who showed me a piece of mine he had acquired at one of these benefits for a fraction of the value.  He was very proud, and had no idea that the experience was degrading for me.  "Look!  I bought this $800 artwork of yours for only $200!  Isn't that great?"

And finally, at the higher-end art auctions, such as an art museum, there is a very obvious divide between the haves and have-nots in attendance.  I've given my artwork (through a juried process, by the way) to a museum each year for its fundraiser, which is a swanky party with great food and an open bar.  Guests wear formal attire and it is common to overhear, "What are you wearing?" in reference to the designer.  The donating artists, who can't afford to bring a date, slowly identify each other by the lesser quality of their clothing.  Artists and bidders are seated together at tables, but conversation is awkward.  "You must be an artist!", someone will say, looking me up and down. Last year, a woman commented, "You are so brave to wear that outfit here,"  (referring to my secondhand dress and boots).  Trying to be funny, I said, "You wait.  Next year everyone will be dressed like this."  "No," she said.  "They won't."

So, I had a nice meal and free booze, and watched my $800 piece sell for $140 and drove home thinking I probably wouldn't donate to any more auctions.  The fact is, I can't afford memberships to these organizations or tickets to their events.  When I tried to have my jewelry displayed at the museum, I was rejected outright.  During the first few years of donating to auctions, I felt altruistic, but increasingly, I just feel taken advantage of.

I do still donate small items to small, local organizations.  They are not targeting artists, exclusively, to provide donations.  They generally don't invite me to their events, but their budgets are very low, so I don't expect it.  I can give something small and feel ok about it, and I know it helps a little bit.

The blog post I linked to at the beginning does offer some suggestions for changing the yucky relationship between artists and fundraising auctions, and I hope some of the organizers start paying attention.  If I can split the take with the organization, I am more likely to donate something of higher value and feel like I at least received something for my effort.  If they put some effort into promoting me and my work by giving bidders a lot of good information and posting a link to my website online, it shows respect, adds some benefit for me, and is more likely to generate higher bids, which is a win/win.  Making sure the artists have name tags so that bidders can ask questions makes a huge difference.  And treating the artists as if their contribution is at least as valuable as the money being raised is vital.  Welcome us and talk to us, introduce us to potential bidders, and for Pete's sake, give us a glass of wine if it's a cash bar and we can't afford it.  It's no fun being a socially awkward artist attending an event alone, standing in a corner without a drink and not knowing anyone in the room, waiting for someone, anyone to please bid on your artwork.  A little extra effort might make it a less painful experience.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Mosaic retrospective

I was asked to return to The Evergreen State College to deliver a lecture presentation about my work.  I did this last year for the same class, but different students.  This year, I decided to tell the story of my work from the beginning, demonstrating my slow learning process, and how attention to andamento has influenced my style.

While going back through old images, I was shocked to realize how rudimentary my technique was only a few years ago.  I also recognized that I have learned to make mosaic the same way I've learned everything: a little bit backwards.  In art classes, I always infuriated the instructor by jumping ahead.  They give the class some clay and ask us to begin by creating a coil bowl, but I'm already sculpting a figure.  But, my figure breaks in the kiln because I didn't work the clay correctly, and during the next session, I want to know how to make those coil bowls.  My learning process is to rush in and make mistakes, and THEN follow directions.

So it has been with mosaic.  Granted, when I began in 2000, the internet was new.  There was no youtube or tutorials online and I was just learning to use my big monster tower computer, and I may have found a few photos of mosaic on the internet, but nothing like the vast amount of information available now.  So, I was just busting up tiles and sticking them onto wood panels with mastic (which is all wrong, by the way.)  When I was given a big box of scrap stained glass, I didn't even know how to cut it.  Here is one of my first pieces:
Yes, I was so proud of this, a friend helped me put a title and watermark over the image and he posted it online for me.
As I've been collecting images for the powerpoint I'll be showing to this class, I keep seeing work that I once thought was really great.  And I still like the designs I created - I just had no clue about how to place the pieces to create a sense of flow and direction.  They are choppy.  I put pieces where they fit.
Now, this Blue Moon mosaic isn't bad, if you ignore the odd grout lines.  You can see that I was trying to use light and dark pieces for shading, but the placement of tesserae is a mess.  Now, I feel compelled to go back to my old work and re-make them using skills I've since acquired.  I think I would start with this one.

It was a relief to come to this point in my work, where I am finally starting to "get it."  There are a couple of things I would change about this, mainly in the face, but I have at least begun to be more careful about my placement of glass, making sure the grain of the pieces moves in the direction of the flow, and the keystoning radiates out from the central of the spirals.
Gypsy Rose, designed by Marco Hernandez
I really see my progress in this mosaic.  I played with different styles of andamento, cutting solid shapes for the roses, placing pieces randomly in the face and scarf, and using a more classic andamento for the background.  I think this is from 2010, so it took me 10 years of doing mosaic to start to understand how to make mosaic that is controlled and appealing to the eye.
Now, in 2011, I took a class from Carol Shelkin, and I've been playing with the techniques I learned from her.  Since I use small, odd-shaped pieces of salvaged stained glass, I'm not patient enough to cut each piece into little squares.  BUT, there is still some serious control taking place within what appears to be a random mess of colorful pieces here.  Without my past experience, I'm not sure I could have made good use of Carol's instruction.  And, I'm still learning.  In five years, I expect I'll be using these more recent examples to show all that I was doing wrong in 2013.  I can only hope so.