Thursday, December 17, 2009

Learning from mistakes...

One thing I'm realizing about myself is that I can sometimes be oblivious to things that must be obvious to the people around me. It's not that I'm an idiot, really. I just get enthusiastic about something and lose myself in the process, not considering pragmatic details.

I learn best by charging forward, then looking back at my screw-ups. Well, I have always believed that I learn best that way. Should I reconsider? In the early 1990s, I did a group apprenticeship with a potter/sculptor, Pam Sinclair. Each week, she set up a project for our small group to work on. I inevitably did something different, moving into unknown territories. Then the next week, I'd try what the others did the previous week. My projects were less consistent than everyone else at first, and Pam was often frustrated with my out-of-context questions, but by the end of a year I was selling my work in a New Mexico gallery.

With mosaic, as with most of the art forms I've tried, I'm basically self-taught. There has been a lot of trial and error. Over the years, I became more dedicated to mosaic, buying books, joining online forums, taking a few workshops, and now attending an annual conference. Because I'm being paid for my work, I need to meet a high standard for quality and integrity. But every job is different, with new challenges, usually unexpected.

As I mentioned in previous posts, the recent cold spell caused delays with my current project. I was unable to grout in freezing weather, and when it warmed up a bit, it was still cold enough to slow the curing process. I have a certain window of time to work, while Anouk is in school, and lately there have been obligations in the afternoons and on weekends, making it difficult to follow the grouting through the way I should. I've managed to find people to pick her up for me on a couple of these occasions, but the time it bought me wasn't enough.

It was only yesterday, while standing on a tall ladder in the cold and rain with tarps bungied overhead, whipping around me in the wind, I realized that I should have postponed the exterior portion of the installation until spring. Granted, the contract was signed in early September and I thought it would be done by October, but when it became clear that it would be pushed into December, I should have put a hold on it. I was too eager, both to see it through to completion and to get paid.

Yesterday, one of the doctors said the clinic is interested in having me put lettering up on the building to match the vines. I was still on the ladder in the wind and rain at the time. I said that would be great, but I warned him that my pricing will be higher. I explained that I was following though on pricing revisions on the advice of a coach, and had been tracking actual expenses on this job, and would be making appropriate adjustments in future. I added that I would need to wait for better weather, also. He seemed just fine with that.

So, while I may stumble over myself more than most people in order to move forward, each of these little falls teaches me something to do or avoid next time. I am constantly growing as an artist and business owner, and slowly gaining confidence with my work. I can't say enough about the NW mosaic yahoo group I joined a few years ago, as the members are all extremely generous about sharing information, advice and feedback. Whenever I'm stuck, they give me a push (or a pull, or a kick when I deserve it.)

From now on, no exterior architectural mosaic during winter. And I'm cutting back on this whole holiday bazaar frenzy that took so much of my energy this year. It's time to focus my time and work harder and better on mosaic. One step back; a big leap forward. On one hand, I look forward to becoming an expert mosaic artist who has already been through it all and knows exactly what to do. On the other, these challenges keep the work interesting. Besides, I realize there will always be challenges because I will never stop trying new techniques and approaches. That's the nature of the job.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Frozen!

I moved away from Michigan in 1988 for a reason. Well, for several reasons, but one was the frigid cold that dominated at least half the year. When I moved to the Pacific NW, it was like Fall all Winter to me. I didn't mind the Moist Season because it usually hovered around 50 degrees, so I could throw on some gortex and still bike and hike and enjoy the outdoors in relative comfort. Every 3-5 years it seemed we would get some extreme weather in December or January, and most years we would get a day or two of snowfall.

Over the past 5 years, the weather has changed dramatically around here. We've seen more winter storms, and the past two years were marked by incredible floods, high winds, and landslides. We came close to some flooding this year in November, but the rain eased just before the Chehalis River crested. I am definitely grateful for that, but over the past couple of weeks, we have had some of the coldest temperatures I can remember in WA.

I have to admit, the blue skies and sunshine on the glittery, ice-covered landscape is stunning. Along the steep roadsides, incredible ice formations decorate the rock walls. When I pass by a small local lake in the mornings, just as the sun is hitting the water, thick steam swirls up in spooky wisps, looking like a huge crowd of ghosts dancing on the surface.

But this cold is causing me a whole heap of frustration and delay. I've been rushing to meet the deadline for installing this mosaic because the clinic is scheduled to open on the 18th. Last week, I spent two days putting up an exterior mosaic in 35 degree temps. My fingers were swollen with cold and my toes were numb. Luckily, the thinset seems to have cured without problems, which was a concern. I expected it to warm up this week for grouting, but it has only gotten colder, so I haven't been able to finish the work. If the grout freezes, it will compromise the curing process.

Meanwhile, I have 3 glass-on-glass mosaic panels in my studio that were supposed to be installed in the entryway of the clinic by now. On Friday, I started grouting early because I needed to leave for the night in the late afternoon. The cold caused the epoxy grout to cure very slowly, and I was not sure it was ready for me to leave it when I finally had to go. Sure enough, there is a light haze on the glass, so I have been painstakingly buffing each piece with superfine steel wool for the past couple of days, and I'm still not finished buffing the first panel. The third panel is still waiting for grout. I'm worried also that a couple hundred dollars worth of adhesives have frozen in my studio, deeming them unsuitable for use.

Our pipes froze on Monday and we have been having a water shortage ever since, despite wrapping our pipes excessively with heat-tape and insulation. It has become clear that we somehow lost pressure in our water tank, which is something I'll be working on today. No water is always difficult, but is extra problematic when I am responsible for the care and feeding of so many animals. They are all very thirsty. I keep a container filling under my one trickling faucet, and use this source for all of our cleaning and as drinking water for the animals. Water for drinking and cooking comes from the store for now.

It doesn't help that I was really sick with a stomach bug at the beginning of the week, and could barely get myself upright. I'm just now feeling almost normal.

When it gets below freezing, it seems the raccoons become really desperate for food. Last year, we had a cold spell and lost 8 chickens and 9 ducks in two weeks to raccoons. They were ambushing during the day, when the birds are free-ranging. We have interrupted a raccoon attack on our turkeys each of the past two nights. The first night, one managed to bust through the chicken wire near the top of the coop. Last night, it reached through the wire, got hold of a turkey, and chewed on its shoulder before we got there. The turkey had managed to escape from the raccoon's grasp, and had somehow climbed the wall and wedged itself in a corner of the ceiling, using its wings to brace itself there with its feet holding onto the chicken wire. She is wounded, but recovering.

Beyond these major inconveniences, there are the small annoyances. The coop doors are frozen shut, the car won't warm up in the morning, Mike had to drive to work two mornings with no heat at all (45 miles!), the eggs are frozen when I get to them, and I'm having a hard time keeping the house above 60 degrees.

All of this typing served mainly to postpone going back outside to solve these issues. I have to repressurize the water tank (wish me luck!) and try to make the turkey coop more secure. All I can say is that, despite the sunshine and absolutely stunning surroundings, I am longing for the good old days of incessant drizzle that used to be the bane of December and January.

But, I realize that we can count on our weather just getting stranger and more unpredictable in future years. I guess I just need to suck it up and be more prepared. And I'll try to enjoy the sun while it shines on the glistening ice-covered hills.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

When you love your job, is it still work?

Working as an artist can feel socially weird, sort of in the same way as being a stay-at-home parent. That said, it was with great enthusiasm that I finally switched from saying "I'm a stay at home mom," to saying, "I'm an Artist," when asked. Still, that statement is usually met with a skeptical expression. People usually ask, "What do you paint?" I give a quick explanation of my work, then change the subject.

I'd say about one out of every 10 strangers I talk to responds with a slightly bitter, "How nice for you." And, it is very nice that I have been able to generate work for myself doing something creative and fulfilling. It is very nice that I am in a relationship with someone who can support us while I take this chance, and who believes that it is the best option for all of us. Several times a year, I ask, "Should I get a real job?" We have looked at the pros and cons, and the fact is, all of our lives would be negatively affected if I went to work for an employer. We might be able to buy new sheets or winter coats when we need them, sure, and it wouldn't be such a crazy idea for us to take a 10-day trip to Spain this winter. But, I would have to switch Anouk to the larger school so that she could catch the bus each morning, and she would have to go to daycare every afternoon, and much of my income would be paying for that. We would have to greatly reduce the amount of food we grow, sell the goats, and rely more on electric heat because I couldn't keep up with our wood supply. When Anouk is sick, I can keep her home without risk to my job security, and I spend a portion of each day just taking care of our home. So, as long as we can get by on Mike's income and what little I make, it just works out best for all of us.

I do sometimes feel like I am not considered to be "working". I'm not sure how much of this is my own complex, and how much comes from other people's attitudes. It is often seen as me having a fun hobby that earns me a little side money. Yes, I do enjoy my work most of the time, but man, it can be grueling! I stand on cement all day in a cold, studio. My hands get sore and stiff from repetitive motion and gripping. I often have to wear a wrist brace because my tendons become strained. My fingers are always covered in small cuts and stained from adhesives. During a large installation, I often work long hours in uncomfortable circumstances. For the past two days, for instance, I've been working in near-freezing temperatures with numb fingers and toes.

But that Pediatric Clinic has been transformed by a simple glass mosaic vine climbing the pillars that frame the entryway. I step back at the end of it all to get the full effect, and it is just lovely. Without my work, it would be a plain, stuccoed building like every other medical building on that street. Now, it stands apart and welcomes patients with a promise of a fun, cheerful interior. I love that feeling. I love when the doctors pop down to see my progress and they are SO happy!

My work makes people happy and I do love doing it. But it feels like work.

At a "Business of Art" workshop (by Pam Corwin - look into it if you are doing this kind of work) I asked the panel of wholesale artists if it is difficult to make the same item over and over, sometimes hundreds of times, and does it then feel less like fun and more like work? They all said, in different ways, that they can either use their innate talents to fill wholesale orders, sometimes working late into the night to meet a deadline - or they can go get a job, maybe in an office or waiting tables, on someone else's schedule and according to someone else's rules. It can be even harder work to labor tirelessly on art that you feel passionately about, that is part of you, and that is your only source of income, than to clock in at a job that you don't care so much about and that you can walk away from at the end of a day. Ultimately, it just depends on how you want to spend your time and how much risk you are willing and able to take.

Now, off to my other job; being a mom.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

More thoughts on meat...

While dismantling a chicking this morning, I was thinking about our transition to eating meat. Mike was a strict vegetarian until about 3 years ago. He was the kind of snobby vegetarian who would throw a fit in an Asian restaurant if he found out that the delicious soup he had just eaten was made with chicken broth, and who only ate gelatin-free yogurt and rennet-free cheese. I was a "flexitarian" who would occasionally eat meat in a situation where all other choices were unappetizing, especially in other cultural contexts. Our first trip to Europe was miserable for Mike. There was virtually nothing he could eat. To them, "vegetarian" meant that meat was not the main focus of the meal, or that it contained vegetables.

I began adding small amounts of meat to my diet more deliberately after finally seeing a naturopath about my tendency to black out on an almost daily basis. I had come to accept this condition as part of life, thinking it was probably a residual side-effect of semi-starving myself for 8 years as a young woman. My naturopath discovered that I was low on a kind of iron that we build in our childhood, and it comes only from meat (I hated meat as a kid). When I began to include trace amounts of meat into my diet (at first, I just drank a small cup of broth each day) the black-outs disappeared. I no longer experience the dips in my energy that I did before.

We had both chosen our levels of vegetarianism based on environmental, animal rights, and health issues. Raising our own livestock solved all of these questions, except when it comes to actually killing your meat. This part is still hard to accept, but it has become a very small part of our lives. When you raise animals at all, death becomes a part of your reality. We do our best to protect our chickens, ducks and turkeys from raccoons, but we lose quite a few each year to those ninjas. I find feathers everywhere, body parts strewn about, and I can't help but imagine the terrifying experience of that bird as it was chased and dragged to its death. We lose far more animals to this predatory demise than to our, relatively, more humane methods.

Last year, we lost over half of our chickens and a whole flock of runner ducks to predators. One of our goats became ill and died, another goat got his head stuck under the manger and broke his own neck, and our two longtime canine companions both died - one of old age and the other from the sudden development of Addison's Disease. Compared to the abundance of unexpected deaths we had to process on our farm over the last year, the one afternoon that we quickly dispatched 5 of our turkeys seemed, well, not quite so awful.

To some extent, it probably sounds like I'm trying to rationalize our meat consumption. This morning, I was doing one of my least favorite chores. After we roast a bird and eat most of the meat, I boil it to make broth and strip all of the rest of the meat from the bones. I find it really disgusting. But today, I realized that I was a bit less grossed out than in the past. I was aware of how the tendons connected, the structure of the bird, and less sensitive to the fact that I was handling the flesh of an animal. I guess I'm becoming desensitized.

The fact is, we still eat far less meat than most Americans, and I think it is plenty. We bought 10 organic, free-range chickens from Barnyard Gardens this fall and kept two of our butchered turkeys. These will last the year. Each time we pull one from the freezer, we have one special meal, some leftovers, and then broth for soup. Poultry raised on our small farms does not deplete resources the way factory farms do, they contribute organic matter for our gardens rather than adding devastating amounts of untreated sewage into the environment, they live happy and healthy lives, they are killed as humanely as possible, and we eat meat that we know is free of hormones and chemicals, and is actually far more nutritious than store-bought meat. (That's because our birds eat bugs and slugs and weeds and vegetable scraps.)

Vegetarianism is perfectly sustainable, as long as people are good at balancing meals, and making sure they choose organic, non-GMO sources. For those who choose to eat meat, I encourage everyone to avoid factory-farmed meats of any kind. The conditions are nightmarish, the environmental cost is not factored into the lower price (nor are the tax subsidies), and it is an inefficient way to grow food. With growing concern about food shortages throughout the world, we really need to eat sustainably. The population is growing, biodiversity is diminishing, and food scarcity is a reality in many places, and spreading.

Read Jane Goodall's "Harvest for Hope." The first chapter is pretty depressing, but she does offer success stories and ideas for action later in the book.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Creating Thanksgiving Tradition


I have fond memories of Thanksgivings from my childhood, piling into the car and driving to my Grandma's house, which would be filled with the same familiar smells each year. My Grandma was (still is) a simple woman who survived on potato chips and processed meats, but on Thanksgiving, she made a fantastic, home-cooked meal. My uncle, aunts and cousins would be there, the parade would be on T.V., the adults started imbibing early and were giddy all day. After dinner, they played poker while the kids swiped as much dessert as we could manage. My strongest impression from those Thanksgivings is a house filled with laughter.

Now, I live far from family, and they all live far from each other. My cousins are distributed as far as Japan, and my Grandma has descended into deep dementia. For many years, Thanksgiving was almost a non-holiday for me, just a day that the stores were closed. While in relationships, I joined with my boyfriends' family, which was always pleasant. When I was single, there were sometimes potlucks with friends. I tried to create a tradition of forcing people to watch "Trail of Tears" or other documentaries about the history of Native American subjugation. "Life-of-the-Party", I think they called me.

When Anouk was born, I felt more nostalgia for those childhood memories, and it has been important to me to create a tradition based on family and extended family, along with an emphasis on food (growing our own, understanding agricultural politics, appreciating how we are connected to the earth through our food.) Unfortunately, our friends usually have plans with their own extended families, so it is just us three, and my dad usually makes an appearance.

Added to the challenge is the fact that I have always been an abysmal cook. I don't enjoy cooking, and have resented the fact that this part of Thanksgiving was considered my responsibility. I served very mediocre vegetarian Thanksgiving dinners for many years, so my dad got in the habit of stopping by, making his appearance, then heading to join with friends eating more savory and meat-centered meals, probably with much more festivity. Then Mike, Anouk and I would head to the movies.

The past two years have improved. Our more successful efforts at growing our own food, along with raising our own turkeys, has helped to define our family's tradition. This meal involves food that we have been intensely involved with from cultivation through harvest and preservation. I believe our appreciation for the food is heightened by that relationship, especially when it comes to the turkey. When you nurture a living creature and kill it yourself, the weight of that life feels significant, maybe profound.

Mike cooked last year's meal, and he did a far better job of it than I ever have. So, he is doing it again today. He has brined the turkey overnight and is preparing it for the oven right now. I harvested some carrots, took string beans out of the freezer, and cooked a LOT of pumpkin this past week. He's mashing our own potatoes, but he also bought a bag of groceries to add to the meal; sweet potatoes, parsnips, celery, onions and some spices. This morning I got up and made desserts (all pumpkin) and now I'm off to work in the studio. I plan to make some time to play games with Anouk later.

I still feel like this is a dull holiday for Anouk. She is aware that we are having a special meal and honoring our food today, but she has to make her own fun. We pulled out the boxes of Christmas decorations, books and videos, and she has been watching Frosty the Snowman, coloring in her Xmas activity books, pulling out our stockings. Today marks the beginning of the Holidays, a month or more of decorating, buying gifts, vacation and celebration that helps us get through the dreary wintertime.

It would be great if we could join with another family to bring more festivity to our tradition, but this is where we are right now. Far from family, but happily enjoying each other, our land, and our harvest.

Monday, November 23, 2009

New Artist Identity


A couple of weeks ago, I had an epiphany regarding my business. For years, I've been trying to market myself as an architectural mosaic artist, dropping off pamphlets and portfolios with designers and sending emails to architects. While having lunch with the the other two artists involved in the enhancement of this new pediatric office, the more experienced of the three of us mentioned that the name of your business is of utmost importance when addressing architects. Apparently, they can be incredibly picky on this point. She explained that she shifted from a more casual, fun name to her actual name in order to put give a stronger impression with architects.

Immediately after this lunch, I had a meeting with a business advisor who drove the point home. She said no architect would even consider hiring "Cosmic Blue Monkey" for a commission, despite the quality of my work. This was shocking news to me, so I set to work right away figuring out how to reinvent my business in order to get paid actual income for my hard labor. I finally came up with JK Architectural and Fine Art Mosaic, and I have created a temporary website to go with it.

It is suddenly very clear to me that this is an extremely important step for me as an artist, and the time is right. For many years, I have enjoyed making little, functional items for festivals and holiday bazaars, but the profit margin on these things is nonexistent. They are so very labor intensive that I spend hours working on things that I can only get $30 for in this tight market, and after overhead, that pretty much comes out negative. My focus on recycling may be noble, but it won't put food on our table, and I now have a studio chock full of trash that I hope to make into something of quality, someday. I need to narrow my focus. It is time to stop mosaicking every jelly and mayo jar we use, stop soaking labels off of beer bottles thinking I'll find a use for them, stop saving milk cartons and laundry soap jugs. Then I will have more room to store the cupboard doors that I use for mosaic panels, the many containers of glass scrap, and really useful pieces of cement board and wedi for good quality mosaic panels.

I feel like such a grown up!

While I can't stop making things, and will certainly continue to crochet, sew and print during my "relaxation time", it is time to let go of that as a potential income generator. If I had found THE product that everyone loves, and had felt inclined to make that thing over and over, it would have worked out great. But the thing I love to make, and the thing I'm best at, is mosaic art that enhances spaces in a way that is functional and also decorative. For me, nothing brings things to life like mosaic, and I see potential for it everywhere.

I'm not ready to let go of Cosmic Blue Monkey Designs. I spent half the summer mosaicing a big sign for my studio, which isn't going anywhere. But I hope JK Architectural and Fine Art Mosaic will come to be known as one of the best sources for creative home and business accents on the West Coast, that I will be sought out for restaurants and courtyards and entryways and window treatments and , and, and....

See: http://www.jkmosaic.yolasite.com/

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Michael Specter - Denialistic?

I listen to NPR in my studio each day while I'm working. It keeps me informed, inspired, and incensed. Yesterday, I heard that author Michael Specter would be interviewed about his new book, "Denialism; How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives." This sounded very compelling, as I am so stymied by mainstream denial of things like climate change, poverty, injustice, health care issues, nutrition, and problems associated with our current agricultural methods. I expected Mr. Specter to give everyone a good lashing.

Instead, he denounced any relationship between immunizations and autism, made a stink about people who take vitamins, and stated that we might solve world hunger by embracing genetically modified foods and reducing emphasis on organic farming.

Now, it has been six years and I have gotten rid of all of my "Immunization Research" file, but when Anouk was born, I read extensively about vaccinations. It is a very emotional subject when you are trying to make the best decision for the health of your child. I recall that every study I read was funded all or in part by an Autism research organization or pharmaceutical companies or insurance companies. Depending on funding sources, conclusions varied dramatically, so it was important to read through it carefully. Most compelling to me were papers and articles explaining how immunizations work when they enter the body, and that there are inherent, measured neurological effects. I found an excellent pediatrician who is informed on both sides of the issue, who took time to help me with this huge decision, and we worked out a vaccination schedule that I feel good about. My daughter is immunized against the major diseases (not chicken pox) and will be protected when we travel to other countries, but she was never administered a "cocktail" where they give up to 5 shots at the same time. Her doctor's main argument is that he sees far more children getting diseases from lack of immunization than children who have been affected by Autism. So, it's a crap shoot, but parents are usually making this choice after serious research, not out of deliberate ignorance.

As for vitamins, who cares? Maybe they help, maybe they don't. I personally believe that we have far better results from eating a good diet, so I rarely take supplements. My husband takes a handful of vitamins every day, and has been seeing his cholesterol improve steadily with no other lifestyle change. If he thinks it helps, I support it.

Now, the organic food question is one that gets me all steamed up. I'm no expert, but from all that I've read and heard (on NPR, of course), our stupid agricultural methods are part of what has gotten us into this mess to begin with. More and more food is grown on high-production farms, using pesticides, sold for bottom dollar. Scientists believe it is a contributing factor to the loss of about 1/3 of our commercial bee population, which then results in lower crop yield, and we are anticipating future decreases in food supply from bee shortages alone. Pesticide run-off enters our water systems, causing environmental degradation and affecting the fish we have also relied on for food. Food can be grown locally, in people's yards, on rooftops, in raised beds - I even heard about a CSA in New York where the food is grown in a truck bed. Small, organic, community farms are being cultivated in some poverty stricken areas, providing good food for the local people. (I heard about it on NPR!) Michael Specter's suggestion that we create synthetic foods with little inherent nutritional value (I believe they add vitamins) to feed to poor people strikes me as very "Soilent Green."

When a caller questioned the author on this topic, he started talking again about genetically modified foods solving the hunger problem, rather than answering her question, which gave me the impression that he has not fully researched this topic. I think he has an opinion and he's sticking to it. That's denialism, buddy.

While genetically modified food is not necessarily the same as non-organic food, I recall reading an article that explained how one affects the other. An example described two adjacent farms, both growing corn, one genetically modified to resist a pesticide and the other organic. By creating a corn variety that is not killed by this pesticide, they can spray it liberally by plane, killing the weed or bug or whatever they are trying to eliminate, but not hurting the corn. But, the pesticide doesn't just go away. The nearby organic farm gets a good dose of the spray by proximity, which takes out a portion of their non-resistant crop. The pesticide also enters the water table, so everyone else in the neighborhood gets to drink it, water their crops with it, and wildlife get their share as well.

So, obviously, I am not a scientist or an expert of any kind, and I'm writing this from memory without siting sources. But, I swear, the original sources were reliable. For Michael Specter to claim that everyone who reads the same information, yet does not draw conclusions in agreement with his own, is in denial seems superbly arrogant.

Now, if he had just made statements that I agree with, I'd say he was right on the money!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Contemplations on turning 40

I started thinking about turning 30 when I was 27. Mainly, I thought about what I wanted my 30s to look like, and how to get there. I was alarmed by what I had not yet accomplished or experienced, so I set about achieving a few goals. I rented an art studio, started putting my work out into galleries and shops and doing informal shows. I traveled to Europe and Mexico. And I switched gears on my career, moved from Seattle back to Olympia, got involved with my good friend Mike, got married, bought this property, got pregnant and had a baby, all within three years. I started my business and have been working steadily at being an artist and living sustainably for the duration of my 30s.

This year, I had a similar experience, realizing I'm swiftly approaching a new decade and wondering "what now?" What do I want my 40s to look like? Forty is hard. The physical changes are more tangible: my weight had redistributed so my clothes don't fit right anymore, my eyes can't focus on anything within about 16" of my face, I've lost stamina and motivation to work out, my back is vulnerable, and I've experienced (too soon, too soon!) perimenopausal symptoms.

As a woman, I think 40 is a significant age. The bloom is officially off your rose. My mental image of a woman at age 40 is subdued. I put on my black leather, knee-high, lace-up Fleuvogs and wonder, "Am I too old to wear these?" I think I am supposed to stick to high-waisted jeans, plain knit tops and practical brown shoes. (Though jeans now cut into my thicker waist and squeeze my thighs like sausages.)

I think of all of the things I will no longer do. I don't think I'll ever go club dancing again. I can't stand being drunk nowadays, though I sometimes crave the silly abandon that comes with it. I'll never experience that exhilaration of falling in love, first kiss, the exploration of a new romantic partner. No more road trips where I get in my car with my dog and just go, camping spontaneously on logging roads or sleeping in parking lots. No more uncontrollable laughter late into the night with a good girl friend.

And there are the things I never did. Things I meant to do. I never went off traveling without a partner along. I was never in a Yaz cover band called "Strangler Fig." I never got a graduate degree or learn to play an instrument or ride my bike down the coast or learn aerial rope dancing.

But then, I never planned on having a child. And I never believed I could actually work as an artist. I have no regrets, not really.

Still, as I prepare to enter the next decade of my life ("Your last juicy decade" to quote a friend of mine) I feel like I'm doing some kind of housecleaning of my identity. I want to become more organized at home, more focused with my work, to earn a fair wage that actually contributes to our household income, to live more simply, to find time for fitness, to find time for self-care (baths, meditation, visiting friends, reading BOOKS, writing, playing), and to get back in touch with my humor and imagination. And Mike bought me an accordion for as an early birthday present, which I am determined to learn to play.

I've gone through a lot of processing during the past year, thinking about all of this. There has been a lot of letting go of old, worn out expectations. Now, I am feeling excited about the potential for growth and achievement. I'm ready to welcome 40 and to celebrate.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Mid-November Update

Winter life here on our little homestead is so different from summer. As I type, the trees outside my window are swaying dramatically in the wind and rain is pelting down. The sky is deep grey, and I find myself feeling sluggish and unmotivated. The only heat sources in my studio are a plug-in radiator that has very little effect and a huge propane blower that is very loud and the propane fumes give me a headache. So, it is very easy for me to procrastinate going out there, choosing to write a blog enry instead. This is increasing my internet visibility after all, so it counts as "marketing."

That said, I have been very focused on my business in a variety of ways. Last week, I met with a woman from the Small Business Development Center, which offers FREE advice for people like me. I occasionally take business workshops or go to seminars, but having someone sit with me one-on-one and address my individual business needs was invaluable. She spent 2 hours with me, discussing my goals and making some financial calculations that resulted in a precise hourly amount that I need to charge my clients in order to be viable. It is several times my current fee, so we discussed how to promote myself differently in order to get into the appropriate market, which is high-end custom architectural mosaic.

We decided that I need a new business identity for this purpose, along with a separate website just for my fine art and architectural work. Since this meeting, I have been obsessed with defining this new identity and making this important transition. I feel ready to focus my energy on fantastic installation work, and to let go of many of the many little items that I make for recycled art festivals and holiday bazaars. I will continue to do these, for now, but with more mosaics and less minutae.

Still, I am constantly creating inventory for upcoming holiday sales. I have a new crocheted hat design that is very fun. I'm cutting and repurposing sweaters into stockings, hats, and mittens every night. Then I carry them around with me, embroidering the seams whenever I am sitting for any length of time. I pulled out my linocut supplies last night, so I'll be using old designs to print holiday cards. I have all of these materials on hand, so I want to use them up. This may be my last year selling sweater items and other random things.

The farm is quiet now. There are only 3 turkeys, and they have been going obediently into their coop when I coax them in, around 4pm each day. The chickens are barely laying, and I've been meaning to get a light that will operate on a timer. I do have to make sure they are locked up tight every evening before dark. One disappeared on a recent night that I came home late, and I find raccoon tracks in the mud of the chicken yard every morning. The goats have thickened up, and they like to stay indoors when it rains, so they are staying out of trouble. I just borrowed a truck and brought home a winter's supply of hay.

Using wood heat is probably the biggest effort for me during the winter. I move and stack wood onto the back porch a couple of times each week. Then, every night, I need to wake up every 2-3 hours to add wood to the fire or it will go out. Our newfangled woodstove burns too hot and cannot be turned down. This is the most difficult thing for me, as a person who relies on good sleep for sanity. To go to bed at 10pm, get up over and over, then wake up at 6am - I just feel zombie-like all day.

I'm still harvesting carrots and tomatoes now and then. Last week I cleaned the chicken coop and used the bedding to mulch the veggie beds. I noticed some chard re-growing. Mike has been mulching the perennial beds on the weekends, working all day in the cold and rain. I've been trying to cut up and freeze or cook the pumpkins. We don't have an appropriate place to store pumpkins; nothing cool and dry. They are on the covered porch, but still in the damp air, so they won't last all winter. We could put them in the cabin, but we would be likely to forget them down there. We have made pumpkin gnocchi, pumpkin soup (only I will eat it), pumpkin bread, pumpkin cookies, and of course, pumpkin pie. We have been straying from our only-homegrown diet, buying convenience foods more and more often. Anouk is the biggest challenge, since she will rarely eat what I make. I keep cans of green beans and pineapple on hand for her, and along with milk, that makes up the bulk of her subsistence.

In other news, I am turning 40 in a couple of weeks. But I think that deserves its own entry, if I decide to make my thoughts about it public. Forty. I just don't know if I'm ready yet.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Drastic Plastic


This past Monday, I taught a recycled art project to my daughter's Kindergarten/1st Grade class. After they were finished, I stood in front of the room and talked for a few minutes about recycling and resourcefulness (their word of the day).

The next morning, when I was dropping Anouk off for school, one of the Kindergarteners came up to me and said, in a very rehearsed way, "I am not going to recycle. I will just bring all of my garbage to you for your art projects." I had the distinct impression that a parent told her to say it, and it emphasized a defeated feeling that I carry with me most of the time.

Everywhere I go, I notice the plastic and other garbage. Some garbage uses precious resources, but will eventually biodegrade, or at least sit in a landfill for a thousand years without leaching toxins into the dirt (like glass.) However, plastic is created from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. And plastic does not biodegrade - it photodegrades, which means it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, releasing dioxins into the environment in the process. Dioxins are produced during the creation and destruction of plastic, especially with PVC, and are known carcinogens. Recent tests show that, in places where dioxin levels are highest, women in those populations have a corresponding high incidence of miscarriage. Who knows what other effects are currently taking place?

There is an area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch where currents flow together and bring floating plastics to one localized spot. It is roughly twice the size of Texas. An easy place to start learning more about this is by typing Great Pacific Garbage Patch into Wikipedia. There are also videos posted on Youtube where you can see what it is like.

It is easy for people to simply throw plastics away and imagine that the garbage is gone, or far far away. But, those dioxins are now found in most sea life, and it is getting into our bodies directly (by eating fish) and indirectly (by eating things that are part of the food chain.) While watching a presentation by Captain Charles Moore, I was really stunned by one particular sad story. Many sea-birds, like the Albatross, gather their food from the surface of the ocean, but cannot distinguish between live food and floating plastic. These birds are collecting plastics and feeding it to their young. The photo that I attached shows the remains of a baby Albatross that starved to death with a belly full of plastic garbage. This is becoming a serious problem, and it breaks my heart.

Here I am, doing my best to prevent any unnecessary plastic from coming into my house, finding ways to incorporate it into building projects when it does, and hoping to raise some level of awareness through my art. But, I am plagued by a feeling that I'm not doing enough. Some say that we can overcome these problems one person at a time, but I don't see how that is going to get us out of this. There needs to be more effort at the corporate level. We need to develop alternatives that can be used by the medical profession and in so many other places where plastic has become the only real product that will work for certain things. The fact that nurses, dentists, food prep workers, etc. all over the world are putting on and tossing out plastic gloves one after another all day long haunts me. The image fast food cups and lids generated every day lives in my head. As a society, we need to find ways to reuse containers, invent biodegradeable plastics, and stop wrapping every single product in layers of thick plastic.

One other source that I absolutely love is Story of Stuff. It is a 20 minute video you can find online that is very accessible for anyone, including older kids. It outlines the problem in a very concise way and offers ideas for a different way of life. http://www.storyofstuff.com.

One more story that I heard during an interview with Anne Leonard really floored me. She visits garbage dumps all over the world, and she learned that a large number of children are killed in garbage landslides. She said she met one family that had lost 4 children to garbage. She said, "Children are dying of garbage." It is time to make a change, folks.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Seeds of Compassion

First, I feel compelled to admit that I am not a practicing Buddhist. I am not a practicing anything. Maybe I'm too undisciplined, but mostly I find that no one belief system fits for me, although many have something to offer, and there is nothing about Buddhism that I don't like. I love the focus on compassion above all.

Raising a young child compassionately is one thing. Teaching a child how to BE compassionate is another. Children can be so inherently self-centered and lacking in empathy. Sometimes I feel like I am droning on and on about how it is important to treat others as you would like to be treated, imagine how the other person feels, please be more gentle with the dog, remember how lucky we are when so many others are without homes or food, blah blah blah... Then she cuts in with some tangential comment that tells me that I sound to her like the adults on Charlie Brown cartoons.

But, this year (age 6), I am noticing some significant effects of all of that droning. The teachers have commented that my girl has been a role model, speaking up when kids are being mean to those with differences. She is learning about oppression, and it frustrates her that some of our friends are not allowed to be legally married and that many white people are afraid of people of color. She is noticing injustices around her, little by little, and asking hard questions.

I am thinking about this today especially because our car was stopped on a corner where a man stood holding a sign saying, "Anything Helps." Anouk said, "Mommy, give that man some money." We do sometimes give change, sometimes not. Just a few weeks ago, we bought a guy a meal. But, this time I chose not to. The guy looked younger than me, able bodied, and I suspected he might be an addict. Anouk pulled $2 of her allowance money out and said, "Please give this to him." And I did.

I was proud of her, but also wanted to explain why we don't give money to everyone asking for it. For one, we can't afford to. We live on a tight budget. But, I also explained that he might be using the money to buy something that is bad for him, like alcohol. She answered firmly that it didn't matter. She said that we don't know what he needed it for, and maybe her $2 would help him somehow to get a job. And she's right. It doesn't matter.

We read a great little book recently called, "The Crocodile and the Hen." In it, a crocodile keeps trying to eat a hen, but the hen calls him "brother" and this perplexes the crocodile. He can't understand how they could be related, since they are so different. Eventually, a lizard points out that they all lay eggs, so that makes them like family. From that day on, the crocodile and hen were great friends. When Anouk and I talked it over, we decided that, if everyone looked at what they have in common with each other, rather than what is different, we would all get along much better. Since then, she has been looking for examples of this lesson in real life, making some great observations.

I feel like I've been fumbling through parenting, trying to be honest, apologizing when I'm wrong, sometimes losing my patience, and often just negotiating my way through the day. And then there are moments like today, when she pulled out most of her precious cash-stash to give to a stranger, I figure I'm doing ok.

Monday, November 9, 2009

What is a Cosmic Blue Monkey?


People are often amused by my business name: Cosmic Blue Monkey Designs. The question is often asked, "Why?" So here it is in a nutshell...

Years ago, I had a close friend who loved to explore all things metaphysical. She was well versed in Numerology, could tell me what was going on in my life based on my muscle tension and facial blemishes, studied Aryuveda, and delved into Mayan Astrology. Apparently, the Mayans had their own complex system of astrology, each of us has a "signature" and this tells you something about your purpose in life. A signature is a combination of 3 elements, so each person is something like a "White Magnetic Dog" (that's my husband) or a "Yellow Spectral Warrior" (my daughter.) When my friend informed me that I am a Blue Cosmic Monkey, I was thrilled! How fun is that? And it felt just right.

Each part of the signature tells me something about my life's motivation. The color is my "source of power" and Blue means Transformation, intuition, energy, vision, magic, healing. The middle word is a "tone" which determines my function, and Cosmic is this: The patience of a tree. You are a great listener. Able to see above the fray of dramas, transcending argument & offering calm, objective advice. And the last word is your "tribe," which tells you your "archetypal essence." Monkey is Play, Illusion, Magic, Artistic Trickster. There's more to it, but that is the simple explanation.

However, I prefer the cadence of Cosmic Blue Monkey, so I use that for my business name. You can find your Mayan signature here: http://www.galactichardwarestore.com/calculator/mayan_calculator.php It is fun to play with.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

It's November.


As I type, a pot of pumpkin is brewing on the stove. Usually, I pop them in the oven for an hour or so, then remove the guts and peel. I can then cut up the soft flesh and turn it into a puree with my Vitamix. Unfortunately, the consistency is way different from the canned pumpkin I buy at the store, so my pie takes longer to cook and is not very firm. I asked Mike to help me carve one up last night (it takes some strength!) and we cut it into pieces to get it ready to boil. I am hoping that I can puree the boiled flesh and get a thicker consistency that will work better with my recipes.

This weekend, friends will be coming over for a "Pumpkin Celebration" where we will all share pumpkin-oriented dishes and recipes. I'm hoping this will help stave off pumpkin overload, which is already setting in.

While we are having a remarkably mild Fall so far, it is always colder in my studio than it is outside, and I'm finding it more and more difficult to get an early start each day. My toes and fingers get chilled out there, and cold fingers are clumsy. My work suffers. I have a propane heater out there, but it smells awful and gives me a headache, so I try to work in the cold unless temps are really low.

I'm about halfway done with the project I'm working on for an Olympia Pediatric clinic. My friend Heather Taylor-Zimmerman is painting extensive, amazing murals on the ceilings and walls of the clinic, depicting jungles and oceans. Feltmaker Janice Arnold is making vines, animals and clouds that will be integrated into the space. I am creating glass-on-glass mosaic panes for the entryway and vines that will decorate pillars on the exterior. The idea is to make it a fun place for patients to go and to offset the anxiety kids feel when going to the doctor. It is going to be fantastic. One thing that amazes me is to visit the clinic and see how much Heather has accomplished with paint compared to my own progress in the studio. Mosaic is just incredibly painstaking.

In the meantime, I have holiday bazaars scheduled in Olympia in early December, so I'm working in the evenings to make inventory for those. Lately, it has been harder than ever to keep up my stamina. I've been exhausted, and all I want to do is relax and read or take a bath. But, I feel that I must keep making things every spare minute because we are counting on that income. Last night, I was cutting out stockings while making dinner, and we couldn't eat at the table because it is covered with fabric pieces.

Also, I am trying to get my books in order and apply for public art projects and keep marketing myself so that I have another commission after this one is finished. It usually takes most of a workday just to submit for a call for art, and I have only had success one time (in 2007 for a $600 stipend.) I know that I need to hire a photographer and spend a day going around to all of my former job sites to photograph the work in context and with that professional touch. When I finally do this, I might have a real shot at a modest public art project, but it is expensive.

I have found this to be the busiest time of year for me. I seem to get commissions in the Fall, at the same time that I need to build a stash of holiday stuff to sell. I should be posting items on Etsy, but that is yet more time photographing, formatting, and typing descriptions. I need an assistant!

I think my pumpkin is burning...

Monday, November 2, 2009

Day of the Dead...Turkeys.


Yesterday was the day of reckoning for all but three of our turkeys. The previous day, I had to keep them cooped without access to food to prepare. This was the hardest part for me. It felt cruel, and I cringed whenever I walked outside to hear them gobbling for me to let them out. I woke up on Sunday morning with a queasiness in my gut, and hoped our friends would come over early to get it over with.

Our friends, Paul and Kirsten, own Barnyard Gardens in Shelton, a CSA farm and edible landscaping business. Paul grew up farming, and he was the horticulture teacher at Mike's school until he began his business. Kirsten is a farm extension agent, and she works with small farms and agricultural outreach programs through UW, in addition to working the farm and selling produce at their local farmer's market.

They brought over their truckload of equipment and set everything up in our driveway, adjacent to the coops. Mike filled huge buckets of hot water to pour into a large metal container with a propane heater to keep the water at 145 degrees. There was a problem with the heater, so Paul had to do some rewiring, creating a delay. I was worried that they wouldn't be able to carry out the process. I had an old friend driving from Portland (2 hour drive) for a turkey, and I really wanted to be able to send him home with one. Besides, I didn't want to drag it out another day.

Paul and Kirsten have a 1-year-old boy, so I gladly took on kid-duty. While I feel that we all need to be able to face the reality of our meat production, I am still not comfortable with it. But I have decided that, since I raise the turkeys with a lot of care, I should be allowed to duck inside when they are killed. Thankfully, my friends arrived right at the beginning, offering me a welcome distraction. During the time it took to show them around the property and introduce them to the goats, the turkeys were all beheaded, dunked in the hot water, de-feathered, and "dressed".

Paul and Kirsten have a contraption that looks like a big plastic barrel on legs, with rubber nubs all over the interior. They put the turkeys in this thing and it quickly pulls out the feathers as it spins. The whole operation is quick, clean and efficient.

We are left with one tom and two hens, and we will attempt to breed them this spring - something that is rarely done anymore. (Domestic turkeys are unable to breed on their own and can't live past a year anyway, and heirloom breeds like ours are rare.) I look forward to seeing them raise their own chicks. We will have to make some changes to protect our birds from predators, possibly installing electrical fencing. We lost half of our turkeys, which is a huge loss. In fact, we just lost two more chickens on Halloween because I was out late with Anouk, and Mike forgot to close the coop. But, if we can manage our flock well from now on, we might be able to sell great, free-range turkeys for a profit every year. While figuring our price per pound, I did online research and was shocked to learn that people pay $100-$200 for a free-range heritage turkey. This year, we are losing money for sure, but I think we can do better.

It is a relief to have only the 3 beautiful white turkeys to manage for the rest of winter. The coop was getting crowded and I was getting very tired of chasing them all around every night to collect them. They were ranging farther and farther, and I had to get them out of the neighbor's yard twice (and they are NOT friendly neighbors.) Clipping their right wings had little effect, except that they didn't roost on our rooftops anymore.

So, on this Day of the Dead, my thoughts are going most immediately to those silly turkeys that lost their lives yesterday to become nourishment for a few humans. It sure brings a new level of appreciation for our Thanksgiving dinner.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Avoiding Halloween Sugar-Overload

It is the day before Halloween, and our family persists in charging out into the night to demand candy from strangers. As a child, this was one of my favorite traditions, and I am sad to see how few children are allowed to carry it on. There is such a culture of fear in our country that people take their kids to the mall during the day to collect candy. How does that compare to striking out into a spooky Autumn night, trees and leaves rustling in the wind, venturing up to one door after another, never knowing who will answer? But, some unfounded rumors of razors embedded in apples, and an increasing mistrust of our neighbors, has changed all of that.

Many of my parent friends don't send their kids out simply because the sugar overload is an experience they dread. My daughter reacts strongly to sugar also, but I feel like it is a once-a-year indulgence, and I can deal with it. However, here is one technique we use to create a compromise:

We used to allow Anouk to keep something like 10 pieces of candy, and we traded the rest for a new toy (something she has been wanting, purchased ahead of time to make it easy to give up the candy.) Last year, she was five, so we made the arrangement a bit more sophisticated. We decided we were willing to offer her up to $20, and she had collected around 25 pieces of candy. We said we would give her a dollar for each piece she gave up, and would take her to her favorite toy store to spend it. Initially, she traded for $15, keeping 10 pieces of candy. At the store, the toy she wanted cost $18, so she gave up three more pieces of candy.

One thing to keep in mind is to follow through on the arrangement as soon as possible. Immediate gratification is key for kids and negotiation. Also, as she grows, she will get faster and more efficient at collecting candy, and we won't be able to offer as much money per piece. We will have to stay flexible and change the arrangement as she grows. Eventually, she may just stick with the candy.

As a kid, I stayed out late trick or treating, collecting bag after bag of candy. I made that candy last until Easter. Each kid is different, but so far, we are all satisfied with this method, and Anouk learns a little lesson in value and commerce.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Jizo Bodhisattva Mosaic


Yesterday, I managed to get to a small business conference in East Olympia by the skin of my teeth. I dropped my daughter off at school and drove about 40 miles to the area that I expected to find the conference, based on the address. I got lost for a long time, but finally arrived about an hour and a half late. Enterprise for Equity, an organization that helps low income people start businesses (I went through their program 3 years ago) made it possible for me to attend by paying most of the fee. And my friend Tara offered to pick Anouk up from school in the afternoon so that I could stay for the whole program.

It was nice to put on clothes that weren't covered in adhesive and to venture out into the world. It felt validating to present myself as a business owner, a professional in my field. I was reminded of many key principles that I tend to ignore, like the importance of factoring profit into my pricing and tracking cash flow.

The last seminar of the day focused on using social media to promote business, and the speaker (Dave Bryant) discussed the use of networking sites and blogs to get attention. He said, "Every business should have a blog." Now, I have been posting on my blog, but I rarely address my work here. I do online networking with my mosaic colleagues and I post updates on my Facebook business page, but I will make more of an effort to write about my life as a working artist on this blog.

In August, I completed a new mosaic panel featuring the image of Jizo Bodhisattva. I have felt drawn to this symbol for about seven years now, but this is my first attempt to create it in mosaic. As a background for the story, I had moved from Seattle, where I had been a dancer in a troupe for about six years prior. Now, I was living a couple of hours drive from my friends, way out here in the sticks, and I was pregnant. One of the other dancers had a baby, and the baby had a heart condition. She underwent surgery, which seemed to be a success at first. But, she suddenly passed away, and when I heard this news, I was heartbroken. I spent a lot of time grieving by myself, for the sweet little 11-month old girl I had held and played with a few months earlier, and for my friend's unfathomable loss.

At the same time, it hit me that the baby growing inside of me was also a vulnerable little being, and how I was already changing, becoming fiercely attached to this child in a way that I had never felt about anything. I realized that, if anything this terrible happened to my baby, my life would be shattered.

During this time, I discovered the Jizo image, and it resonated strongly for me. Jizo is protector of women and children, guiding the passage between life and death, and he is a special symbol for parents who have lost children. I began painting Jizo images, wanting to manifest that sense of protection and peace. I framed one and gave it to my grieving friend, though I don't know if it offered any kind of solace for her. When my daughter was born, we planted her placenta with a Japanese Maple and placed a Jizo statue next to it.

Since then, I have loved the Jizo symbol. It is a simple image, conveying a serenity and acceptance that I aspire to. Finally, when I had some time to work on my own art (not commissioned), I made this piece. It is done onto a salvaged cupboard door using reclaimed stained glass. The skin tone is created with a really amazing glass that has an opalescence that you can really only see in person. The red attire is also opalescent. The simplicity and bright colors remind me of childhood innocence, while Jizo himself possesses a deep wisdom and calm.

Recently, a friend commented that she was surprised I would sell one of my mosaics that commemorates an experience from my travels. And it is true that it can be difficult to hand over a piece in which I am emotionally invested. At the same time, I feel unfulfilled if I only create decorative work. Most of my mosaics come from a very personal experience, and if I kept them all, I would not be in business. I do love when they are sold to friends, or customers with whom I keep in touch. I like seeing them again on occasion, or at least knowing who has them. I do have a hard time selling in galleries, where I am sent a check with no personal connection to the buyer. When someone buys my work, they take home a little part of me. (Literally- a good bit of my blood is embedded in each mosaic.)

So, now you know.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Killing wild vs. domestic animals

Well, Autumn is in its full glory here in the Pacific N.W. One of my windows is glowing with gold from the leaves of Maples growing up from a ravine that runs behind our house. To the right, a large pasture stretches back to an evergreen forest that connects to the Black Hills, a low mountain range that I cannot see right now because mist rises up into low clouds. Shadowy silhouettes of trees fade into a gray background.

Every now and then, a truck or S.U.V. passes, and I see a flash of telltale neon orange in the cab. I hear occasional gunshots throughout the day, mostly echoing in the distance, but sometimes alarmingly close. The Porter Tavern, a small saloon that has been in business for something like 100 years here in our little town, has a large banner outside that says, "Welcome Hunters!" Every year at this time, I find myself revisiting my thoughts on the practice of hunting.

I grew up in the Northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan, a stone's throw from Ted Nugent. Hunting was a big part of the culture, so every Fall there were trucks driving around with deer carcasses in the back or cars with them strapped to the top, and it was common for antlers to be mounted to the grill. It seems like someone I knew got shot every year - one fatally, by his best friend. We dressed our dogs in bright colors in the Fall, making sure our Great Dane was covered in neon so he wouldn't be mistaken for a deer.

My uncle Bernie, one of the nicest guys you could meet, has always been a hunter. I loved visiting my cousins, but hated having to pass by the gutted deer hanging in the garage. I did, however, enjoy the venison they served that time of year, despite never being a big meat-eater.

In my early 20s, I lived in an army tent in a rural area not far from here, and when hunting season arrived, it was very scary. Hunters would drive out and park on our road, and just sit there in the cab and wait with their gun at the ready. When they left, there would be a pile of fast food packaging and alchohol containers left on the ground. When hunters describe this as a "sport", this is the image that comes to mind for me.

As a young woman, I became a quiet, but dogmatic, liberal. Becoming mostly vegetarian was no real sacrifice for me, as I had never cared for red meat at all. (Besides which, I was anorexic.) My social political opinions became more defined, and I was definitely against the barbaric practice of hunting.

Here I am at the very tail-end of my 30s, and I now eat poultry and fish, and occasional local buffalo. I try to eat only animals raised humanely, allowed to free-range and fed a natural diet. In fact, almost all of the meat we consume was raised on our land. I have always believed we should only eat animals if we can face the reality of its life and death. It continues to be a challenge for me. I have every respect for vegetarians, though I think meat has health benefits that are essential for many consitutions, and I black out less often now that I get occasional meat protein.

Barbara Kingsolver discusses this issue at length in "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" and she makes some very good points. The production of those meat-substitutes that so many vegetarians rely on is not without problems. I have always defended my non-meat eating by stating the fact that the resources used for raising meat could produce many times more vegetables and feed that many more people, which is very true. But it does not apply to those raising livestock on small farms. Also, there are regions and cultures that would starve if they did not eat meat, especially in very cold or desert climates.

Now, if I am justifying the killing of free-range animals for food, how is that different from hunting? Deer are flourishing, and venison is totally free range, organic, delicious, nutritious food. I think part of it is my own bias against hunting because of the negative impressions I described. Another aspect is the way I view wild animals. Deer are such peaceful, graceful, vulnerable animals. If you are not a threat, they will come right up to you - I've experienced this many times. The neighbor across from us has an orchard in his yard, which is well-fenced with "NO HUNTING" signs posted every few feet. (Despite this, hunters regularly stop to sit in front of his house, and they often ask if they can shoot the deer.) He whistles in the evenings, and the deer come to eat grain from his hand. During hunting season, they congregate here, sensing safety. Each spring, we see the does return with newborn fawns. We notice when one is missing, and when they are dead on the road. We watch them grow, see the antlers start, but the bucks don't return. I'm sure some are hunted and shot and others survive on their own. On a given evening, there can be 20-30 deer under those apple trees, and I just can't imagine killing one on purpose for food. However, I know this is a conceptual thing. I also couldn't kill a goat or a dog, but some cultures wouldn't think twice.

Which brings me to cute, furry bunnies. A few years ago, we were so overrun with rabbits (100 had escaped from a nearby farm and had taken over the neighborhood) that I was collecting and rehoming them. They were living and breeding in our barn, and man can they reproduce. They were a breed raised specifically for meat, and I thought a lot about how much more efficient this meat source is than any others. The meat is lean, reportedly very tasty, and plentiful. I think evolution resulted in the best natural defense of any for this animal: cuteness. Is there a more adorable creature? You just want to hold and cuddle them! I don't think I could ever bring myself to eat one.

So, I guess I've become slightly morally ambiguous on the subject of hunting. If an animal is endangered, it obviously should be protected. I still have a very hard time with the fact that these animals are often injured and left to suffer because the hunter couldn't complete the task, or even the stories of a hunter tracking a bleeding, limping deer for miles and miles before it finally collapses and slowly dies. This does not seem humane. I also think most hunters are out in the woods, drunk, with guns, jacked up on testosterone, and I am terrified of them. (The women are just as bad because they think they have something to prove.) I have many thoughts on the matter, but no clear conclusions, so I feel kind of silly posting it publicly. Oh well.

Did you know it is legal for blind people to hunt in Michigan?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Which is better; urban or rural?

Once again, I was struck by a conversation I heard on NPR while working in my studio. This time, writer David Owen was insisting that New York City is the most environmentally sustainable place to live, possibly moreso than Seattle or Portland. I've never been to New York, so I don't have a strong opinion either way. But I've been considering the question of the environmental impact of city life versus country life, which has plagued me since moving out here to the sticks.

When I lived in Seattle, I biked almost everywhere. It was fairly easy to navigate the streets and find alternate routes that were more direct by bicycle than by car. If I was too tired or felt unsafe, I could wait for a bus and put my bike on it to go the rest of the way to my destination. My housemates and I grew gardens in our backyards to supplement our groceries. I think people living in the city can be very conscientious, and I do think it makes sense to condense all of that human activity to the smallest area possible to reduce impact.

At the same time, I recall feeling so overwhelmed all of the time by the constant noise, light, and stimuli around me. There are cars everywhere. Businesses keep their lights on, along with streetlights and parking lot lights, all night long for safety purposes. City life is busy, there is always something going on, and all of that entertainment uses a ton of energy and creates never- ending streams of garbage. Even now, when I visit Seattle or Portland, there is such a variety of exciting things to do, I feel like I'm missing out on a hundred of them. I also notice that I feel bombarded with storefronts full of enticing things to buy, and I feel the urge to consume.

In 2000, I moved back to Olympia, which is a very moderately-sized city with great communities. When I walk down the street, I always see people I know, and have known for 20 years, since it's where I went to college. Bicycling is easy in Olympia, the bus system is convenient, there are two co-ops, and people are generally very environmentally conscious. Truth be told, it has been the easiest place for me to live according to my own environmental standards. Many of my Olympia friends grow year-round gardens that are so much more manageable than my own, right in their small backyards. There is a thriving farmers market. People in Olympia produce their own biodiesel, compost, work together in community gardens, offer all kinds of classes and workshops for free, and most are the nicest people you've ever met. Can you tell I love Olympia?

But, we couldn't afford a home in Olympia when it came time to buy, and we were interested in having a large garden and goats. We had the idea that, in case of some kind of disaster, we wanted to be self-sufficient, as well as possible. The spot we eventually bought is 5.3 acres with a diverse ecosystem. There were already buildings on the property, so we wouldn't have to dig a well or put in a septic system. We lived in the 1970 mobile home for 5 years, then dismantled it by hand (recycling most of it), and had a 1400 s.f., passive solar home built on its footprint. We have replaced almost all of the lawns with vegetable and perennial gardens, which do require some watering, but no mowing.

Since we have a well, we are not pulling water from a larger system, and there is no treatment necessary. Our septic is the same story. It is a small system, and we use only biodegradeable cleaners and products so that our system can filter naturally. We originally thought that Mike would eventually move his job to the Elma school district, only 6 miles away. However, he has grown comfortable with his place as Special Ed teacher at the alternative high school that is a 45 minute drive away. This is our biggest carbon contributor. I have been working at home, restricting my drives to Olympia to about once per week, when I run all of the errands. Now that Anouk is in school, I drive her both ways, and this is another conundrum. She could catch the bus to a larger school, saving that gas and those emissions, but we are very attached to the 3-room-schoolhouse she attends, 12 miles away. When we can afford it, we will buy a hybrid or electric car. Growing our own food means less packaging, less fuel to transport produce, fewer pesticides being used, and the few animals we raise for meat living a good, healthy life. And we don't buy stuff. There is no need for a lot of stuff, and it's not in our faces, tempting us to buy, buy, buy. I don't need nice clothes, and what I have is bought second-hand.

Ultimately, I think people living in both rural and urban environments can make good choices. I love living out here. I love the quiet most of all, and the darkness at night, the trees. The guy across the street has a special whistle to call the deer, who come in the evenings to eat grain out of his hand. We have a 30-foot waterfall near our house. I hate city life. It feels oppressive and confining. When I visit a large city, I can't stop thinking of all of the toilets flushing, dishes being washed, flourescent lights, trash, etc. Not everyone can live in the city. And not every city-dweller is making conscientious choices. Most of us are just doing the best we can with what we have.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sanctify Me


Recently, while catching up with a friend, I talked about how we've been working hard to grow our own food, and that "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" had a big impact on my attitude about the time and labor I have to spend on this endeavor. My friend said, "But now you can be all sanctimonious and walk around feeling like you are better than other people." It was said tongue-in-cheek, but I felt that it came out of resentment, from a mother of three living in the city, just trying to maintain her sanity. It achieved the desired result; it shut me up.

Today, I was listening to an interview with a food critic on NPR about the latest trends in American food. She said people are very concerned about where their food comes from, how it is grown, seeking quality and sustainability with their food choices. There are different approaches, some eating free-range, grass-fed meats, some going vegetarian, locavores, etc. A man called in to say that this was all fine and dandy, but was there any way to keep these people from being so self-righteous about what they do and don't eat?! He called it "obnoxious." The radio personalities heartily agreed, and seemed apologetic.

When I was at my liberal arts college, studying women's issues and becoming aware of the wide range of injustices in the world, I found that I was not allowed to discuss these topics with non-college friends. Political topics were dubbed "too P.C.," and friends asserted that it was elitist to be politically correct. End of debate.

I have known my share of the stereotypical vegan-snobs who won't eat from a plate that has touched meat, insist that using honey is bee extortion, and who fly into a rage if the cook accidentally includes a dairy-based condiment with their meal at a restaurant. My own husband, a strict vegetarian until 3 years ago, once stacked menus between us at a restaurant in Poland to block his view of my plate of fish.

But most of us are just learning about the genuine impact of our food choices on the economy, environment, and the lives of animals and farmers, and we want to find balance.

The fact is, humans are eating more meat than the planet can support. People are starving in this and other countries, rainforest is being destroyed at an incomprehensible rate, animals are raised and slaughtered by disgusting and horrific methods, and illegal immigration is supported by a fast-food industry that relies on cheap labor for a dangerous job that legal United States citizens are not willing to do. However, animals can be raised humanely, sustainably, and resulting in higher quality nutrition, and most Americans would benefit from reduced meat consumption. Food purchased at a big box grocery store is produced far away by cheap labor. Buying local food saves fossil fuels, puts the money into the hands of our farmers (who are struggling to compete with big companies using unsustainable practices), and we eat fresher food with far better nutritional value. Growing some of your own food is very rewarding, the flavor is incomparable, and it saves money.

Some of you have more pressing challenges to attend to, and just getting food on the table is enough of a struggle. Some are simply not interested. But I have made this a huge part of my life, and I don't intend to be secretive about it to make other people more comfortable. I believe this is an important conversation, worth having, even if we don't agree. If people who feel passionately about an issue are silenced by those who feel they are "obnoxious" and "sanctimonious", we won't get very far.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Waste Free Lunch


Last year, someone sent Anouk a Tinkerbell lunch box, which she loved. It was the soft kind, with a vinyl lining, and we used it all year. Unfortunately, there are a few drawbacks to this kind of lunchbox. Vinyl is evil, for one. The production of PVC is detrimental to the health of the workers in PVC factories, as carcinogenic compounds are created both in the production and destruction of PVC. There is a movie called "Blue Vinyl" that documents a woman's inquiry into the Vinyl industry that manages to be hilarious while exposing how horrific this industry is. So, I'm really trying to find alternatives to vinyl whenever possible.

Next, I keep hearing about pthalates in lunchboxes that may be released into the food contained therein. I haven't done any research into this, but I'd rather err on the side of safety when it comes to the food my child ingests. On Monday, a water bottle rep at the State Fair insisted to me that "anything you inject into a rat is likely to cause cancer." He also said the pthalate talk is all a plot to put water bottlers out of business. I say, if there's a chance it causes cancer, I'd rather not put it in my body and wait to find out.

More pragmatically, I found it hard to clean the lunchbox. Inevitably, Anouk would deliver home a box with schmutz smeared inside and out, into crevices in the seams, and soaked into the cloth cover. I would have to soak it and scrub it, and still there was always dried gook in the corners. On top of this, I needed to provide small, plastic containers and baggies to keep her food separate within the lunchbox. I don't like to put her food in plastic, and she would often throw them away, so there I was buying more plastic, nagging her all the time to pay more attention.

This year, before school started, I began a hunt for something better. I was looking for a pthalate-free lunchbox with a removeable, dishwasher-safe liner for easy cleaning. There are actually a lot of options out there. Sadly, few of them can compete for the novelty of a lunchbox with their favorite characters or bright designs on them. (Someone needs to work on this.) I happened into a Storables store in Portland in late August, not expecting to find anything useful. On display right in the entryway was a whole table of waste-free lunch items. There were the lunchboxes I had been searching for, some with very cute designs printed on them, pthalate-free with removeable liners. There were also some bento boxes, a Japanese stackable lunchbox system. These can be found in very fun shapes and colors, but are still plastic. On top of the whole display, like a beacon, were 2-tier Tiffin boxes, a lunch system from India made of stainless steel bowls that lock together with a handle on top. They were on sale for about $20, so I bought one.

Now that we've been using this Tiffin box for a couple of weeks, I can't tell you how happy I am with it. Mike was afraid that Anouk wouldn't be able to figure out the latch on it, but she got it right away. I was nervous that she would reject it for being plain, but she thinks it is really cool. I love that I can put saucy foods in without concern that it will spill in her backpack, and they are in separate containers. It came with a small, round container for dipping sauces, but I use it to send a little extra snack or treat. Best of all, they clean extremely easily. A little bit of soap and water is all it takes to get even sticky food off, and if I'm lazy I just pop them into the dishwasher.

There were also some reusable sandwich "bags" in the display, which were made of a waterproof material that you simply fold around your sandwich and velcro shut. When you unfold it, it is a placemat. So simple! I figured I could make some of these myself when I get around to it.

I know it is a bit late for posting information about lunches, but I'm in the throes of appreciation for our new system now, and I noticed that Bento and Tiffin boxes are much cheaper right now than they were in August. Look it up on Amazon.com to see the many sizes and colors there are. And if you send sandwiches, look into those reusable sandwich bags, and leave no plastic behind.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Animal,Vegetable, Miracle - Inspiration!

I haven't had much time to get online and spend time typing this summer, because the garden has been keeping me on my toes. We had our most successful year, growing a steady supply of fresh, organic food, harvesting all of it, and freezing most of what we don't eat. I've chopped summer squash, blanched peas, beans, broccoli and cauliflower for freezing. I've baked many loaves of zucchini bread, eating some and freezing the rest. I've made batches of pesto, with more basil waiting to be transformed. I've started freezing chard, too. All of this will be welcome during winter months, and I hope it will help us reduce our grocery budget significantly, while providing us with high quality food that is sustainably produced.

Meanwhile, I picked up "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver from the library on cd. I've been putting it on while I work in the kitchen, bringing in bins of harvested food and either cooking or prepping it for preservation. I'm most of the way through it now, and it has been life-changing. When I started out listening, I thought I was already doing what she is writing about, growing our own organic food and making conscientious choices about how we supplement at the grocery store. She has given me a lot to reconsider regarding the purchase of organics foods from big box stores, and our occasional indulgence in meats of uncertain geographical origins. When we started eating homegrown turkey a few years ago, it was the beginning of a slippery slope. We now keep some Costco-bought ground turkey and turkey bacon on hand for inclusion in some meals. It is not organic or free-range, and we don't know anything about the conditions in which the turkeys were raised or how far the meat was transported. Not to mention the way the workers are treated in these "turkey factories" and the fact that it is packaged on styrofoam trays with plastic wrap. I really think this book is the most important one that I've read in many years, and I recommend it urgently to anyone who eats. I will be looking for local sources for many of the items I now buy from Costco or Trader Joes, like dairy and grains. In the meantime, the food-related tasks that can feel like drudgery, spending hours in the kitchen alone washing, cutting, blanching, peeling, packing - suddenly I feel a sense of triumph and purpose doing these things. I am proud of our life in the country and our amazing abundance, born out of hard work and sacrifice. We are intricately connected to our soil on our little piece of the Earth, as we feed it and it feeds us.

As for an update on our little homestead in September, the tomatoes are finally ripening, though we still don't have a door on the greenhouse, so the chickens are helping themselves to those juicy morsels within their reach. I've been harvesting the potatoes, and I think most are out of the ground now. I've pulled all of the garlic, pulled spent pea vines up to feed to the goats, and many of the bush beans are done producing. I found that the purple beans are going and going though. Zucchini is waning, but we are still getting some of the summer squashes. The chard continues to grow, and I wonder if it will ever stop. We are getting many carrots, but leaving most in the ground for now. We have pulled the last of the beets, which we use in morning smoothies. Next year, we need to grow many more of these. Now we are watching the winter squashes, all heirloom varieties. They are amazingly varied, some bright orange, some striped, some deep green, some smooth or ribbed or warty. Most amazing is the Serpente de Sicilia, a long, snakey squash that we are now harvesting, some of which are growing to 4 feet in length. I plan to cook one up tonight for the first time.

We've had serious issues with our turkeys and dogs. The turkeys are able to fly, unlike the domestic breed, so they often venture out of the enclosure to explore. We've had a dog break-out that resulted in two turkey injuries with recovery. We had one turkey disappearance without a trace. Two turkeys have been killed by our very small bishon-schitzu mix who can fit through gaps in our fencing. We are now down to 8 turkeys, with some committed to other people. We will be trading turkey for chicken, and giving one to friends who will butcher them for us. We plan to keep a tom and two hens for breeding, and hope to still have some for food. From listening to "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" I am also worried that breeding the turkeys will be a daunting task in and of itself, as it is something just not done any more. (Domestic turkeys cannot live more than a year and are physically unable to breed.)

While I no longer have to spend hours every day in the garden, we are still getting a lot of food and I'm struggling to get it all cooked or frozen. It is time-consuming, but well worthwhile for the amazing nutrition, money saved, biological diversity and fossil fuels preserved, and a child raised knowing where food really comes from.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Mosaic business and recycled art

A couple of weeks ago, I was a vendor at Cracked Pots Recycled Garden Art Festival, which takes place at The Edgefield in Troutdale, OR each summer. The grounds are filled with about 80 artists working with salvaged materials, and all items must be weatherproof. Last year was my first year, and I was shocked at how enthusiastic the crowd was. They came in droves, on two weekdays, and spent good money. I was excited to keep going each year, also because The Edgefield is a great place to stay, so it allows us to have a family vacation (though I am working most of the time.)

This past year, my time was absorbed by two large commissions, and I finished the major one in June, so I had little time to create smaller, affordable items for this festival. However, I did manage to pump out quite a few small things during the prior month, such as small pots, lanterns and garden plaques. These are more "craft" than "art" and are not the best use of my creative energy, but I hoped to come home with a nice deposit.

However, the crowd was much more conservative with their money this year. I sold about half the amount as the year before. People did not even buy many of the $20 items that I expected to sell out. I realized that, while I enjoy the festival, and the sales paid for the trip, I don't want to do more like it. I canceled on another recycled art festival in Eugene coming up later this month. By the time I paid for hotel and gas, I'd probably lose money, and I'd rather spend my time in other ways.

Since coming home, I've been focusing on mosaics that are high quality, with a lot of thought put into the design and execution. They are modest in size, but I am very pleased with the results so far. I'm working on a series titled "Memory of Ice" that will be an homage to the glaciers that sustain our planet, and which are in jeopardy at this time. I'm excited about my new work, and I feel fulfilled by it. So, I hope to find a high-end art festival to apply to, and hoping I will be accepted. It is a big investment. Booth fees are incredible, then there's the booth to put together, and all promo materials. But the pay off could be substantial.

Meanwhile, I have a meeting with a new pediatric office later in the month for an installation. I need to do a better job of self-promotion. It's a huge shortfall for me. I feel redirected right now, and I'm looking forward to getting out to the studio in a bit.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tending the garden on the hottest day EVER!


It has been one hot summer, and I'm trying not to freak out. Today is predicted to be the hottest day ever in the Pacific NW, over 100 degrees F. Day after day, we try to water the garden as much as possible early in the morning and after dusk, but many of the plants are still wilting. Our well runs out of water over and over throughout the day. We would take more showers to cool off, but water is scarce. I try to just spray myself down periodically while watering plants, and it helps a lot. Mike has been taking Anouk to town to enjoy air conditioned facilities.

We thought this would be the ideal place to live as the threat of climate change looms in the future. We are on high ground, but enjoy a diverse ecosystem. We are surrounded by creeks and rivers, and this area gets so much water all year. We are far enough inland to avoid the worst of raging storms, and far enough from local volcanoes that we would be fairly safe if one erupts. But this heat wave is an indication that we are not sufficiently prepared when it comes to our water. Our well is not deep enough. We can't afford to drill a new one right now, so we are brainstorming water storage. We want to find a tank that we can use to collect and store rainwater, at least for maintaining the animals and most vital plants, or for washing.

The animals seem to be weathering the heat pretty well. I'm tempted to set the goats free in the forest today, where they can forage and avoid the hot sun. Yesterday, I dunked the ferret in water occasionally, and put him in front of a fan. I keep reminding myself that people and animals live in places that frequently get this hot, and they are fine.

Meanwhile, the vegetables are ripening in full force, so that I can barely keep up with harvesting them and finding ways to use or preserve them. I think I will visit a neighbor later with a veggie delivery, and I'm planning to have a vegetable party soon so that people will come and eat a lot of our abundant food. I'd like to get some of it to the food bank, but I wish someone would make it easy by swinging by to pick it up, or even helping me to gather it. I know there are programs for that in some areas, set up by our new administration. There has to be a way to share the bounty with those who need it.

The computer is upstairs, and it is quickly becoming unbearably hot up here. Time to retreat to lower levels, and to check on the garden.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Introduction

I've been keeping an online journal through my yahoo account, and it was mainly intended to keep non-local friends and family updated, since we live so far out of the way. Eventually, it became more of a place to share my efforts at creating a sustainable life in the country, and running a home-based art business. Yahoo recently made a change, and I don't care for it. So here I am.

My husband and I bought 5 acres in the country near Olympia, WA in 2002. We couldn't afford anything close to town and wanted enough space to grow our own food and own goats. This property had a 1970 mobile home and outbuildings, a mix of forest, pasture, and wetland with a 30-foot waterfall dropping down to a little creek, and the surroundings are beautiful. It's all farms and State forest.

That fall, I became pregnant. I thought I would keep my part-time job at The Evergreen State College and that my life wouldn't change all that much. We had my daughter in the mobile home, in a birthing tub with midwives and two great friends present. It soon became clear that a return to work would not be easy. We don't have any family or friends nearby, and I could not imagine dropping my baby off at a daycare. Besides, we couldn't afford it. My husband is a teacher, and we have been scraping by until recently. I tried to take her to work, nursing her in a sling during staff meetings, pacing with her when she cried, struggling to get her to sleep (which she never did.)

When a question came up about the college budget and my position, I left. I tried to find other work at first, and did work as a Visitation Supervisor, which is a flexible job. But it was incredibly hard to find places to leave my baby at different times and different days each week, and after expenses, I found I earned about $300 per month. It wasn't worth it.

Around the same time, I was asked to to my first mosaic installation for a restaurant in Olympia. And not long after that, I was chosen by a jury to be the featured artist for Olympia's Spring ArtsWalk. I had also signed up for a business workshop offered through Enterprise 4 Equity, which is a non-profit that helps low income people create an effective business plan. Things came together, and I began working full-time as an artist.

So we have a small "hobby farm" in the country where we are learning to grow our own food. We raise chickens for eggs and turkeys for meat. We have five Nigerian Dwarf Goats that we have tried to milk, but have given up. They are sweet and they eat our weeds. We also have 2 cats, 3 dogs and a ferret. The goal for this year is to learn to preserve the food we harvest. In the past, we have just frozen what we could.

I just completed my largest commission yet, for an elementary school in Seattle. It took me 9 months, and I really got sick of doing it, but I was very happy the other day to receive payment for the job. I'm making just enough for us to do extra things, and for my daughter to take gymnastics and swim classes.

My work has an environmental focus, so I sell mainly at recycled art fairs. I use mostly salvaged materials. My reputation and skill has been steadily growing, though I am always aware that I have far to go. I now teach workshops, which brings in additional extra money now and then.

I will continue to write about being a mosaic artist, the environment, and the experience of trying to live sustainably by using less energy, growing our food, and finding innovative ways to reduce and reuse.