Wednesday, December 22, 2010

In need of winter squash inspiration.

I have avoided writing about life on the farm for a few months, in part because I worry that the "I grew some vegetables" and the "yet another animal died" stories get redundant and dull.  We suffered a particularly difficult loss of our beloved 7-year-old cat in early November and, as a result, we rehomed our youngest, most problematic, dog.  It was all horrible and traumatic, but we have moved on.  We now have two very well-behaved dogs, a lovely 8-month-old cat, and two adorable, rescued kittens.  Life seems to be back in balance.

Our five chickens have been molting since October, so no eggs.  Hopefully, they will begin again in January.

But, tonight, I'm thinking about winter squash.  Since I've known Mike, he has had a passion for pumpkins.  We rented a house from friends when we were first married, and he pushed hard to develop a pumpkin patch on the lot.  When we moved out to our property, he made sure to allot a section of the garden to pumpkins.  Over the years, we have become more interested in preserving heirloom varieties, so we now grow all sorts of unusual vegetables, including winter squash.

I can never remember the names of them all, but we grow Marina DiChioggia and Hubbard and Red Bumpy Things.  We harvest and store these, and they comprise a large portion of our winter food supply.

However, I'm just not great at cooking these things and, furthermore, Mike doesn't even really care for the flavor of squash!  I've done pumpkin soup, pumpkin risotto, pumpkin gnocchi, pumpkin cookies and breads, but I usually just puree it up with butter and maple syrup.  Anouk refuses to eat any of it, as the texture makes her gag.  I was just online yet again, searching for good, easy pumpkin recipes, to no avail.  I'm not interested in super-complicated gourmet recipes, or those involving bacon or sausage.  I'd like to be able to concoct something with what I have on hand and create some simple dishes, but with different spices or ingredients.  If there's a simple, savory squash recipe, I have yet to find it.

A friend recently served a veggie lasagne with winter squash as one ingredient, and it was delicious, so I would like to try that myself.  If anyone out there has good ideas for new ways to spice up squash, or even hide it in other dishes, please send them to me.  I'll give them a whirl and post the results.

In the meantime, Happy Solstice to All, and to All a Good Night!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


My newest Elaine Goodman book arrived last week, The Human Form in Mosaic.  I have not read the book carefully yet, but I've been noting different techniques she demonstrates for depicting figures and portraits, while scanning the text.  Between the recent trip to Turkey and this book, I was inspired to take a break from the Rapunzel series to just practice.  I used some small scraps of wedi given to me by my tile-setter friend, Frank Lynam.

For the first, I found a photo in a 1970 National Geographic I happen to have of a Tibetan refugee.  I did a very simplified sketch of her face and proceeded to fill in the spaces with my stained glass scraps.  This is a very different style than my usual faces, less stylized, more emotional.  I usually create faces that express a certain contentment, peace, and joy.  This face expresses pain and loss.  My goal was to do my first portrait based on a photograph, and to see if I could create contours without andamento.  I'm pretty happy with it as a first attempt, but disappointed in myself for the inadvertent extended groutlines, particularly the one slashing her left cheek like a giant wound. 

Next, I designed a face from imagination, more true to my usual style.  Again, there is one particularly offensive groutline that seemed like a good idea at the time; that curved shape that runs from under her eye to the hairline.  I don't know what I was thinking, but sometimes these mistakes become glaringly clear once the piece is grouted.  Also, I wanted to add detail in the iris by cutting tiny little pieces of glass as rays from the pupil.  It makes her look like a zombie instead.  It might have worked in an ungrouted mosaic, but not here.  I am tempted to paint the groutlines there to solidify the iris.

I am finding Elaine Goodman's book very helpful, but I feel that a hands-on workshop is really necessary.  I hope to invest in one sometime this year.  In the meantime, I'll actually read this book and keep practicing.  I'm registered for a mural workshop with Josef Norris at IMA in February and I plan to begin facilitating community mosaic this Spring. 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Rapunzel, Rapunzel

Here is a terrible photo of my first Rapunzel mosaic.  While designing a concrete sculpture back in September, I had an image of an exhibit featuring multiples of this image, done in different materials, colors and styles.  I decided this would be a fun way to practice various techniques while drawing on one character from fairy tale lore.

I've always been captivated by fairy tales.  I had a very thick collection of Grimms Fairy Tales as a child that I read over and over, and I now read them to my daughter.  I think I re-read Rapunzel so many times because I found it so frustrating that Rapunzel wouldn't just cut off her long hair and use it as a rope to climb out of the tower.  Or that the prince wouldn't simply bring a ladder or rope right away.  What was the point of dragging out the process?  Meanwhile, I wasn't allowed to cut my hair as a girl, so it grew down to my butt, always full of nasty tangles.  My mom was known for her long, blonde hair, and she still refuses to cut it to a more manageable length.

I used this Rapunzel as an experiment with using small square tesserae to create facial contours.  This piece is quite small for me (I prefer wall-sized projects), and it was a challenge for me to cut each  little salvaged stained glass scrap into squares.  I quickly began to feel impatient with it, but it was a good exercise for me.  I think it is important, at this point, to go back and learn the foundations of mosaic technique, in depth.  While I worked on this piece, I waited for the arrival of my newest mosaic book, The Human Form in Mosaic by Elaine M. Goodwin.  I'm looking forward to practicing with some new methods, nicely outlined in the book.  Hopefully, within 6 months to a year, I'll find a gallery space and have a real art show with Rapunzel as the central theme.

By the way, my choice of themes is in no way related to the Disney movie that must have just been released.  Pure coincidence.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Mosaic artist returns from Turkey with tail between legs.

We returned from Turkey one week ago, and I still feel disoriented.  The jet-lag was made more difficult by my 7-year-old who spent the first several days home on opposite-time, so the transition back to our regular schedule has been very hard.  It has been a struggle for me to get back to work in the studio after an entire month off, and while I expected to come home full of ideas and creative energy, instead I feel completely stumped.

I am a self-taught mosaic artist, having taken only one workshop, though I've read a lot of mosaic books and I spent the past 10 years working hard to learn the technical aspects of the medium.  One area I have not really covered, mainly for lack of interest, is classical mosaic.  When I planned the Turkey trip, I felt it would be a good opportunity to force myself to learn about the history of my craft, and to appreciate those early styles.

During a tour in Cappadocia, we had a very knowledgeable Turkish guide who led us through a Hittite-era underground city, a Byzantine Cathedral carved in rock, and a beautiful canyon lined with signs of early civilization.  He was able to talk about geological, cultural and religious history in detail, without notes.  Though from a Muslim background, he explained more about the Bible and Christianity than most American Christians have learned in a lifetime, with respect and fairness.  When he learned that I am a mosaic artist, he asked, "So, which do you prefer; Greek or Byzantine mosaic style?"  Feeling supremely ignorant, I just said that my style is contemporary, and I was there to learn more about the classic styles.  Honestly, I didn't know the difference.  Did I mention that I've been a professional mosaic artist for 10 years?  He quickly lost interest in me at that point.

Throughout the second week of the trip, we visited many more sites featuring examples of Byzantine mosaic, and I was utterly impressed.  The level of skill was amazing, and nothing compares to seeing it in person.  Mosaic artists know this: you see a mosaic in print, but when you see the real thing, it is a different experience, often unexpected.  I started out cutting my tesserae into little squares and placing them in rows to fill spaces, but later began to abandon that method, preferring a more free-flow approach that makes better use of my salvaged materials.  But the work I saw in the Sultanahmet Mosaic Museum and Kariye Church was so stunning and made such a strong impression on me, I feel compelled to learn to use my andamento more effectively.

There's a bit of a struggle in my brain right now between the part of me that wants to stick with the style I know and enjoy, and the part that wants to challenge myself to learn another way, and to become more versatile.  I have a project on the table now, the first in a series of Rapunzel mosaics, that is an attempt to bring some of that classic style into my contemporary work.  It is more time consuming, and I hate working with such tiny pieces, but I think it is good practice. We'll see where it takes me.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Not Constantinople...

Close to 20 years ago, when I was tracing the origins of religion in college, I wanted to go to Anatolia to visit archeological sites.  But I never went.  Then, when I was a member of Raqs Halim Middle Eastern dance troupe, performing with a live band to predominately Turkish music, I mingled with many people from Turkey and talked about saving for a trip to the region.  But I didn't.  Now, as a mosaic artist, I have even more reason to visit Turkey. The place is full of ancient mosaics, intricate tiles and incredible architecture.  Istanbul is enjoying great success, with a thriving arts community, and there are many prominent mosaic artists living and working there.

In March, at the Society of American Mosaic Artists conference in Chicago, I happened to sit at a table with one other person.  He introduced himself as Suha Semerci from Istanbul, and we muddled through polite conversation in very simple words because he was just learning English.  During the rest of the conference, we touched bases occasionally, and we have kept in touch by email and facebook over the past 6 months.

Mike and I have planned a trip to Istanbul, in detail, in the past, but we never saved enough money to go.  We finally scraped together a small chunk, along with two no-interest credit card offers, and we are going for it.  I was very excited to have a personal contact in Istanbul, and Suha has been very generous about offering suggestions and looking for information to help us plan.  But more connections keep developing, and it looks like I will have a busy social calendar while I'm there.  At every turn, something else falls into place, and it promises to be a very rich experience.
Here's Suha at work.

When I get back, I'll definitely post some of the highlights of the trip.  We will visit beautiful mosques, take a ferry down the Bosphorus, see the mosaic museum, have tea with colleagues, meet many new friends, and ride camels in Goreme.
We'll stay in a cave hotel in Cappadocia, among the "fairy chimneys."

We leave on the 15th of October, and will be there for two weeks.  As you can imagine, we are getting very excited!  I feel like this trip is a culmination of many interests, and it is sure to be very inspirational.

Stealth Raccoon.

As you may know, your standard Thanksgiving turkey is a genetic mutation, developed to produce the most food for the least money and effort.  The resulting creature cannot carry its own weight after a year and is unable to reproduce naturally, in addition to being flavorless and shot full of hormones and antibiotics. Heritage breed turkeys are making a little bit of a comeback, and we have jumped on that bandwagon for the past few years. 

Each year, we order turkey chicks from several states away, and they are shipped to us in a box through the U.S. postal system (which seems none too happy with the arrangement.)  There are always a couple of dead or dying chicks in the box, and we usually lose a few more before they stabilize in a warm spot in our bathroom.

My goal has been to get them to breed, and eventually eliminate the need to order and ship live baby animals, because it just seems so ridiculous.  They are expensive, too, at about $15 per chick.  However, they no longer possess their natural instincts.  Males often can't figure out what to do with their hormones, females think I am their mate, and eggs get dropped randomly in the yard, left to quickly grow cold.

This year, I managed to get one still-warm egg under a broody hen, who successfully hatched and raised it.  It was a female, and I had high hopes that she might have some inherent maternal instincts, and my plan would finally begin to work.  But, just now, when I opened the coop to let the flock out for the day, I found a bloody, headless body on the floor.  At first, there was no sign of a break-in, but I finally found a spot near the roof where the chicken-wire had been pried apart.  I am grateful that only one of our 6 turkeys was killed, but it appears to be my baby.  My one hope.

Butchering will take place sometime this week, by my good, efficient friends at Barnyard Gardens.  I'm taking the whole bunch in, and will start again in the spring.  I can't imagine the amount of work and investment involved in a real business raising and selling free-range, organic, heritage turkeys, but I am certain that those doing it deserve every penny of the steep price.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Harvest time again!

Last year by this time, I was harvesting and storing as fast as I could go, listening to "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" on cd to keep motivated, and delivering bags of fresh produce to the local food bank every week.  But, if you read my spring posts, you know we had delays and frustration, and the weather was very cold during early summer.  So, we are definitely eating lots of yummy fresh food these days, but not giving much away. 
Here's part of the veggie garden, looking toward the pumpkin patch.  You can see that we harvested and tilled two of the raised beds, and the last one was just planted with winter broccoli.
The bees have been working all over our garden, but the honey super is empty.  We removed the queen excluder, hoping they would start building some comb on those frames, but it seems like we might not get honey this year.
If you look carefully at this shot, you can see that our tomato plants are laden with beautful GREEN tomatoes.  If they do finally turn red, it will likely happen all at once, so I'll be trying to find ways to use and store all of them.  My fear is that they will just begin to go bad, without ever ripening.  Everyone I know has had the same tomato trouble this year, blaming it on the cool early summer temps.

One new thing we did this year was to hand-pollinate our cucumbers and squashes.  Anouk learned to do it very well, so she helps to keep on top of it.  I feel like I have a much more intimate relationship with my vegetables.  It's interesting to see the female flowers open, waiting eagerly for some action, then to look for the male flowers, with their very male anatomy, and to intervene on their behalf.  Sometimes a plant will have a ton of females, with no males in sight, and other times it's the opposite.  And it is always sad to see the withered fruit of a female that was never pollinated; a loss of potential food.  Since we started hand-pollinating, we have so many more cucumbers, it's amazing!  And they are absolutely delicious.
I thought I would end with a photo of one of our Romanesco Cauliflowers, because this has to be my favorite thing growing in the garden right now.  Isn't it fantastic?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Concrete garden mushroom project

Here is a fun project that would be fairly simple for anyone to do at home, and kids can help.  This came from Creative Concrete Ornaments for the Garden by Sherri Warner Hunter, though the mushrooms in the book are far more finished looking than our first attempt.  They are still cute.

First, we filled some plastic storage bins with sand.  Any large containers will work for this.  Then we made indentations in the general shape of mushroom tops, inverted.  Anouk placed glass gems and bottle tops in the sand for decoration.
Next, we mixed up the concrete (one part cement, three parts sand, about one part water) and let Anouk put the concrete into the forms.  *We mixed it too thick.  It should have been pour-able.  Now we know.
We pressed small pieces of rebar into the centers and allowed them to begin setting up while we made the stem forms out of tar paper.  I'm sure there are other materials, but the book called for tar paper, and we had plenty of scrap from building projects.  We made them into tubes, held together with duct tape, and placed them around the rebar.  We then poured concrete into the tubes.
We were supposed to wait 12 hours, but they were ready to unwrap in about 6 (probably because the mix was too thick.)  I had to fill in some gaps with grout, but they are pretty cute, and now they have a happy home in our shade garden.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Carving Concrete

A couple of weekends ago, I headed to Seattle to attend a workshop taught by Elder G. Jones , an artist who carves wet concrete into beautiful garden art.  His work is featured throughout my three books on making concrete forms, so it was an exciting opportunity for me.  I have big ideas for making sculpture, incorporating trash, inlaying mosaic, and generally expanding my skills.

The workshop was great, and I was very happy with the pot that I carved.

So, for my first project at home, I decided to go with the most technically challenging possibility.  Mike has been building a wood-fired pizza oven, and the exterior is unfinished.  For my first trick, I wanted to enclose the hideous chimney assembly in carved concrete, which meant building a form around an existing structure on an uneven surface.
Above: the chimney before, and then right after I removed the form, made of aluminum sheeting.  The towel hanging down in front was used to hold the concrete in at the base, but I had to carve it out of the partially cured block.

The form is removed when the concrete is firm enough to hold its shape, but soft enough to carve into.  At this point, it feels like carving into a very stiff sand sculpture.  You have to be very gentle, or it will come away in chunks.  But, it quickly begins to harden, so from here, you just work steadily until it sets up completely, which is about 5-6 hours.  (No breaks!)
I've been enamored by the phoenix image lately, and it seemed like a fitting symbol for the top of a wood-fired oven.  The front is the body and head, and the wings wrap around, meeting in the back.
I know concrete doesn't really fit the "sustainable art" description, but really, on this level, it is pretty harmless compared to entire city blocks, overpasses, and campuses.  My next step is to find local sandblasters who want to unload used sand, which comprises 3/4 of the mix.  And, as I become more skilled, my plan is to create sculptures that have a core of plastic garbage; the bottle caps, adhesive tubes, and random packaging that I can't seem to keep out of my trash.  This way, they will become part of a permanent, solid object that is functional and beautiful, instead of floating around in the ocean, slowly breaking down, being ingested by sea animals over and over and over for all of eternity. 
Yes, I obsess about these things.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


I haven't been keeping up with this blog thing at all this summer because we are so very busy, it feels like a major indulgence.  Right now, I can hear the goats bleating for breakfast, and the chickens and turkeys are still cooped.  Mike is off to a training and Anouk is still fast asleep.

Because of our garden delays early in the summer, we are not getting nearly the harvest we had last year. 
Thanks to my friend Shari, we have a few broccoli plants that are finally growing edible parts, and a ton of cabbage is going to be ready soon.  Our daily meals now include chard, zucchini, cucumbers and salads.  We have many freezer bags full of raspberries, and I'm starting to freeze veggies for winter.  We are anxiously waiting for the green tomatoes to turn color, and it seems very late in the season.  We will have many carrots this year, an inordinate amount of parsnips, and it even looks like we'll have some corn after all.  The goats had munched the tops off in the spring, but they actually grew back and have cobs developing now.  And we always grow many heirloom pumpkins.

Meanwhile, I am working in the studio as often as possible to finish a set of glass cabinet doors for a client.  My work has involved submitting for calls for art and exhibits, trying to keep track of which pieces have been submitted to which shows, meaning I just have to hold onto them until I am accepted or rejected.  Upcoming events include a show at Childhoods End in Olympia called 15 Ways with Light, an exhibit at the Washington Center for Performing Arts called 25 Feet of Art, the Sequim Glass Art Festival, and the Red Hot Party & Auction at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma.  All of that takes place in September.  I can't even think about October yet.

Well, Anouk is up and I really need to feed her and the rest of the critters under my care.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Garden blues

Our vegetable garden is just not off to a very successful start this year.  When we first started planting from seed, the chickens were accessing the garden, munching to their hearts' content.  We brought home starts for the greenhouse, but the door wasn't latching properly, so they got in and ate all of the cucumbers, eggplant, and broccoli.  We replaced the starts, fixed the door, reseeded the outside beds, and kept going.

The peas tried to come up, but something has been eating them.  For some reason, the beets just won't grow.  Our weather has been unseasonably cold and rainy (payback for the mild winter and early spring, resulting in a major slug invasion), which might explain why so many of my seeded veggies are still little stumpy sprouts.

We have planted the greenhouse, and we should at least have lots of tomatoes and basil.  They are doing well.  But our broccoli hopes have dwindled each week as one after another animal has busted into the garden and eaten every last one of them.  We thought we were safe when we constructed a chicken fortress, entirely enclosed by chicken wire (which will also allow us to stay out past dusk on occasion without fear of raccoon massacre.)  But, the goats have pried fencing apart 3 times now, devastating anything remotely yummy.

We love our goats, but milking was abandoned years ago out of frustration.  Now, they are pets that live in the barn.  During the winter, I feed them in the morning and at night, but that is all.  I can't keep up with vaccinations or hoof trimming, so I just feel guilty for being a bad goat mom.  They are so sweet and affectionate, and, for the most part, they have a great life here, but I think they could do better than us.  So, I'm considering finding them some greener pastures.  It really is about time we did something to make our lives easier instead of harder.  But, the yard will be so lonely without goats...

I plan to replant today for the 3rd time, but we'll have only a few broccoli plants, no corn at all, and the sunflowers and nasturtiums that usually line the edge of the garden will be missing.

The good news is that our broody chicken hatched a baby turkey, and it seems to be doing well. I have hopes that a few more of the eggs she is sitting on will hatch so that we take one small step toward breeding our own turkeys.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Recycling an inflatable mattress:

My daughter wanted to have a slumber party for her 7th birthday, so we had 3 girls over for the night.  My plan was to blow up the inflatable mattress and have 2 girls in her loft bed with 2 on the floor underneath.  The mattress is about 3 years old, and has been used quite a bit for camping trips, tent camping in the backyard, and sleepovers at the high school where my husband works (something the students get to do occasionally.)

I was disgusted to find, as I unpacked the mattress, that I must have failed to thoroughly dry it before packing it last time it was used, nearly a year ago.  The soft surface was covered in a thick layer of mold!  I used layers of blankets for the girls to sleep on and threw the mattress outside to deal with later.

On the next dry day, I used a bit of bleach (I know, I know) in a spray bottle to try to kill the mold, hoping to salvage the mattress.  Then Mike reminded me that, the last couple of times we used the mattress, it deflated by morning.  I was still thinking I could scrub the mold off and maybe patch a leak, just because I knew I couldn't bring myself to throw this huge amount of PVC into the trash.

Here's what I know about PVC: The manufacturing of the stuff creates dioxins, which are leaked into the environment.  People who work in PVC factories frequently get throat and lung cancer from breathing the fumes.  People who live in areas surrounding the factories have a much higher incidence of cancer, and PVC companies spend huge amounts of money making settlements in order to keep the information from making the news.  There is no safe way to dispose of PVC.  Burning it creates nasty toxins.  If you just leave it in a landfill, it photo-degrades, releasing dioxins into the environment.  The stuff is evil.  And it is everywhere, because it is such a perfect material for things like air mattresses, raincoats, and shower curtains.

So, here I was, knowing all of this because I once watched a really great documentary called "Blue Vinyl", and with a queen-sized pile of moldy PVC serving as a new kind of home decor.  What is an obsessive-compulsive recycler to do? 
First, I began by cutting the seams of the mattress, along the sides.  I found that there were flaps inside holding the top and bottom together so that, while inflated, it would maintain a mattressy shape.  So, I cut these apart as well.
And, like other normal people, I saved each and every one of these clear flaps of pvc, because you never know when they might come in handy, right?

As it happens, one of my dogs has had some kind of stomach upset lately, and it has been pouring rain for days, and she therefore has opted to spew feces all over our covered back porch, which is the launching pad for the dog yard.  This porch tends to be decorated with all sorts of flotsam, with the dogs spending so much time there, and I had just finished spraying it down once again before I stared on my mattress deconstruction project.  As I cut the top surface away, I suddenly realized the practical purpose:
It is the perfect size for the porch, and will make future clean-ups much easier.  I folded the bottom segment and stored it for now.  I am thinking of using it as a booth floor at Cracked Pots, or a mat for my studio floor, or for putting down when I cut glass outside.  The sides of the mattress were also cut out, in one long strip about a foot wide.  I might use that to sew some handy waterproof totes.

I feel pretty triumphant for managing to keep this thing out of the waste stream....for now.  Unfortunately, this material will not last forever, and will probably make its way to the garbage can, little by little, despite my best intentions.  This is the problem with plastics.  We can recycle and reuse, but they do eventually get thrown out.  This is my second air mattress, and I will not buy another one.  They are so useful, and my daughter is begging me to replace it, but there has to be a better way.  We will be camping at the end of this month, and I really hate sleeping on the cold, lumpy ground.  I would love suggestions for an inexpensive, eco-friendly way to create a somewhat soft bed.  Feel free to send me ideas.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A very busy June...

My blogging has focused on the farm lately, but my studio work has been just as demanding.  Over Memorial Day Weekend, I finished grouting the 2.5' x 4' mosaic panel that I've been working on since March, which will be delivered tomorrow.  (The photo above is the top portion of the panel, featuring Mt. Rainier as seen from Federal Way, WA on a clear day.)

I knew that I would be barely making the deadline, but a guy stopped by my place on May 5th to ask if I could squeeze in another project.  He is part of a group that holds a race each year, and they will be cycling past my house on June 5th.  Each year they hire a local artist to create 12 creative, funky awards to give the winners of the race.  They have a tiny budget, and it was kind of insane to say yes, but I couldn't resist.  Each day in the studio, I would warm up by making one 6" x 6" plaque, and I just finished grouting them yesterday.  Each one is done onto scraps of wedi board given to me by my friend Frank, a top-notch tile installer, and I used all scrap glass and mirror.

This week, I'm preparing for a workshop I'll be teaching at Hexen Glass Studio (  I will be teaching how to use mosaic in the garden, discussing bases and adhesives for exterior use (which translates to many architectural applications as well).  Students will mosaic onto salvaged cement pieces, creating recycled garden ornaments.

On Monday the 7th, I'll be exhibiting at the Green Enterprise Conference near Elma.

Olympia Pediatrics is holding their open house on June 10th, celebrating their new clinic and the art that makes it stand apart from every other pediatric office in the area.  I was privileged to coordinate with two other artists; muralist Heather Taylor-Zimmerman and textile artist Janice Arnold.

Then on the 18th, the Federal Way Senior Center will hold its celebration and unveiling of the new art on their site, which also has an amazing community garden and a food bank. 

I'll be starting on a project for a private home next week; glass-on-glass mosaic cabinet doors that will feature irises and Western Tanagers, and will be lit from inside.  In addition, I'll be working on inventory for July's Cracked Pots Recycled Garden Art sale.  And I actually have several projects planned just for us, including our stair risers. 

So, I don't just run the chicken infirmary, chase goats, harvest mushrooms, tend bees, weed, plant, clean and parent.  I'm multi-dimensional!

Monday, May 31, 2010

More Poultry News

I have been seeding some of our garden beds for the past couple of months with pathetic results.  The seeds are coming up sparsely, and my peas look awful.  The chickens had made a hole in the base of their fenced area and were spending a lot of time in the veggie garden, and I think they may have been eating my seeds and sprouts.

In the meantime, we had been raising a ton of starts in the greenhouse, and had a goal of getting them in the ground on Memorial Day Weekend.  Mike did some final tilling and weeding, and we planted the greenhouse with tomatoes, cucumbers, basil and melons, with carrot seeds sprinkled throughout the tomatoes.  Then we planted a lot of broccoli and cauliflower, because Anouk loves them and they freeze well, and we lined the garden with zucchini, sunflowers and nasturtiums.  Then, we went to a party in Olympia.

What were we thinking?  We came home to find all of the broccoli and cauliflower demolished, along with some of the other starts.  Urrrgh! This discovery was followed by long talks about the fact that we are pretty overwhelmed, and not keeping up with everything.  We should have secured the chicken yard and clipped wings before planting the garden.  There is so much that needs to be done and the two of us can't manage it all.  As always, we talked about packing it all in and moving to the suburbs.

But, we aren't giving up.  Things get much easier when Mike is home for the summer.  I'm trying to convince him that we can find ways to save money so that he doesn't have to work his after school program, which would give him an extra 3 hours at home every day.

Yesterday, he took Anouk to Seattle to help a friend set up his new chicken coop, and I decided to go to yet another party.  I came home late, and closed up the coop, hoping the chickens had put themselves away as they do each night.  At 3am, I heard the telltale gurgled screeching outside.  My dog Lily and I ran out to investigate, but we couldn't find the chicken.  I returned to the house, but heard it again.  Again, we searched , until we finally found a bedraggled chicken in a corner of the goat yard, very much alive.  I couldn't see her very well, but feathers were everywhere, so I knew she had been mauled.  I moved her to the coop and went to bed.  (Not to sleep.  I can never fall back to sleep after running around outside in the middle of the night.)

This morning, I can see that she is in bad shape.  She is moving around well, but is missing part of a wing, and a good deal of flesh from her back and underbelly.  She has puncture wounds all over.  My friend Paul would tell me to kill her and put her out of her misery, but my inclination is always to try to save animals.  They can be remarkably tenacious.  In a few minutes, I plan to put her into a separate area to protect her from the other chickens (and that damned turkey) and I hope she'll recover.

We will be completely enclosing the chickens this summer by creating a covered run.  So much for free-range.  The fact is, after 8 years, we have learned that free-ranging results in a lot of death and mangling by local wildlife.

In the meantime, we lost 3 turkey poults during the first week, until I added some antibiotics to their water.  I also put sand in their feed to help move food through their craws.  They stabilized quickly, and are healthy and growing fast.  They are now living in an enclosed coop we use as wood storage and as a transition area for our young birds.  Our two baby chickens are still living in the bathroom.  They now fly in and out of their box, so I have to clean the floor periodically.

Our brooding chicken is incubating 5 turkey eggs.  I plan to remove them as soon as they hatch because I don't trust the rooster, duck and Tom turkey with babies.

Life on the little farm is feeling a bit daunting at the moment.  We need to create better systems and re-prioritize.  The green house starts are already doubled in size, so if nothing else, we'll be eating tomatoes and cucumbers this year.  Now I'm off to rehabilitate a chicken.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Turkey News - babies!

Well, my female turkey has been laying, and she sometimes sits on an egg for short periods, but I always find them cold by the end of the day.  It turns out, turkey eggs are fine for eating, so I've used them for baking.  In the meantime, I've had one broody hen laying on a chicken egg for many weeks.  A couple of days ago, I found that egg left untended and stone cold.  The hen had moved to a different spot, so I slipped a warm turkey egg under her.  She has been tending it for a few days.  I opened the egg she had been sitting on to find a dead chicken fetus inside, nearly full term.  Who knows why she suddenly abandoned it? 

Last Thursday, our order of turkey chicks arrived.  There were 15, to be shared among 3 families.  They are hatched and shipped the same day, and I'm finally getting used to picking up a box of live creatures from my local post office.  However, it seems so strange, and I really hope that we will begin to raise our own turkeys so they don't start their lives bumping around in a box.  In previous years, I've opened the box to find at least one dead, and it seems brutal.  This year, all were alive and well, except that one had a malformed foot.  It seemed otherwise healthy, so I kept an eye on it.  Over the weekend, its legs became weaker, and on Sunday, it slowly died.  It was painful to watch and Anouk sobbed, wailing, "It's only a baby!  It's not fair!"  I have no idea what was wrong with it.  Possibly a nerve disorder?  Or maybe its gimpy foot made it too difficult to get sufficient food and water.  Whatever the reason, Anouk and I held a modest funeral, burying it in the kitchen garden and planting the grave with a columbine.

We bury a lot of animals.

Anouk's class incubated chicken eggs this spring, tracking fetal development with charts and photos.  They hatched last week, and she won a lottery allowing her to bring two home (with permission, of course.)  So on Friday, I put them in with the turkeys under a heat lamp in our bathroom.  As a rule, chickens and turkeys are not supposed to be kept together, but I can't figure out another arrangement with our limited space.  There is one disease that chickens can carry that is fatal to turkeys.  However, we've been taking that chance for years with no problems.

So, it seems that our attempts to breed our adult turkeys hasn't worked this year.  We will cull the adult male turkey and try again in a year.  It is my theory that they need to relearn long lost instincts, so I feel we need to give our female more time.  In the meantime, I'll start trying to steal her eggs before they get cold and either incubate them or get a chicken to do it for me.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Morel of the Story

Growing up in Northern Michigan forest, it was a family tradition to hunt for morels every year.  This was one of my grandpa's favorite activities, along with fishing and drinking.  My memories of mushroom hunting are strong and visceral, including the smells of dry forest and that distinctive aroma when the knife severs a fresh morel.  There was the slow walk through the woods, scanning every tree, checking directions, moss, any rotten log.  And when someone spotted one of the elusive fungi, we all swarmed that area, knowing that there would be more nearby.  Usually, we suddenly realized we had been looking at them all along, but couldn't see them, like an optical illusion.  Later, my parents would saute them in butter; another strong memory because those were some of the few "happy family" moments at our house, and I still remember the smell of warm butter-soaked morels.

Western Washington is not considered a place to find morels, so I was surprised 3 years ago to find a few growing in our backyard, right against the house.  They were huge and healthy, so I battered and fried them and served them to my family.  Anouk loved them until Mike came home and said they were disgusting.  She has refused to take a bite ever since.

Last year, they popped up in the gravel in our front yard, not far from the front door.  There were about 100, all healthy, modestly sized.  I gave most of them away.

This year, I was disappointed that I didn't see morels in the gravel again in April.  I searched for any signs of baby morels popping up, and finally gave up on it.  And one day, Mike noticed a couple between the rocks in our perennial garden.  We started looking around and realized there were close to 100 right in nearby garden beds.  Over the weeks, we kept finding more, with most of them growing right outside my kitchen door.  One day, I was so astonished by the numbers, I counted how many were growing in about a 4' x 3' bed, and there were 133!  I'm sure there have been hundreds by now, all over the garden.

I've been giving the morels away to people who will appreciate them - bags full.  Still, I find that they have been waning and getting sort of dry on top.  When the weather turned warm and sunny, I worried that they would all shrivel up, so I harvested pounds of them last Friday.  Following directions I found online, I strung them on thread with a needle and hung them to dry.
This has worked very well.  They are all shriveled into little crispy nuggets and are stored in a paper bag in my pantry.  Yesterday, while watering our raspberries, I discovered ANOTHER good sized patch of morels.  Big, juicy ones.  So I picked them , soaked them, and I'm trying a different method.  I'm laying them on the counter on a dry towel, and will turn them regularly.  I think this will work just as well, without the comedy of me stringing them, losing my grip so they all fall on the floor, washing them, re-stringing, etc.  Besides, now the first batch are all snugly dried on strings, like really ugly necklaces, and I'm not sure how to take them off to cook them.

Speaking of cooking morels, I found this recipe online, which I think I will try:
    1/2 pound of fresh morels 2 tablespoons unsalted butter salt & pepper to taste 4 cups of chicken stock (degreased if home made) 4 egg yolks 1 cup heavy cream
Clean morels and cut into small, spoon size pieces.Heat butter in 2 qt. saucepan, then add morels & salt & pepper. Cover & simmer for about 10 minutes stirring occasionally. Add the stock & bring just to the boil. Meanwhile mix the egg yolks & heavy cream together in a separate bowl. Slowly add this mixture to the stock & morels & heat it while stirring till hot but do not let it boil or the eggs will curdle. Taste & correct the seasoning with salt & pepper and a little lemon juice if you'd like. Serves 4 normal people or 1 or 2 morel maniacs!

I am baffled by the way our morels have migrated to entirely different parts of the yard, and hope they will return next spring.  I am careful to cut them, rather than pull out the stem.  When I soak them, I pour the water back into the garden beds, hoping any spores will reproduce.  Apparently, it takes 5 years for new morels to grow, so it's possible I'll see them return to the other areas in the future.  I welcome any advice from readers about propagating and cooking morels.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Catching Up

I haven't posted in quite some time because I am a bit behind on my latest commission and it is hard to justify time at the computer.  I often get distracted in the studio, and can easily find that I spent an hour trying to make insects out of cork and wire when I should have stayed focused on the project with a looming deadline.  Besides, with spring in full force, there is a ton of work needed on the homestead, and I'm way behind on all of it.

(These are the goats, helping me remove Morning Glory.)

As for that mean turkey, he continues to be a nuisance.  He especially dislikes adults, but seems to leave kids alone.  I really need to clean the coop, but I really can't do much in there as long as I'm fending off a belligerent turkey.  Worst of all, he has been terrorizing the other poultry.  I had to break up a fight between him and the duck, and I often intervene on behalf of innocent chickens.

Mike has reseeded our lawn with a low-maintenance flower/herb mix, so we need to steer clear of it for at least 3 weeks, watering it 4-5 times/day.  This is a huge challenge with three dogs and a (as of yesterday) seven-year-old.  I have to leash each dog separately when they go out, which is frequently.

We have decided to bring on a second cat to manage the rodent population on the farm, as it has become a real problem since our female cat disappeared last fall.  She was an outstanding mouser, preferring to hunt for her food over bagged kibble.  We miss her, and we are hoping a new kitten will accept Lazarus as a friend.  (Lazarus is our very sweet male cat, who begged Stella to be his friend for the past 6 years, only to be hissed at and snubbed.)

The bees are building comb and capping brood. We expect the arrival of new turkey chicks any day.  The garden is blooming and some veggie sprouts are coming up.  I just need to get to securing the dog yard, finishing the greenhouse, building a chicken run, tilling remaining raised beds, weeding about an acre of garden, trimming goat hooves, and stacking some huge piles of split firewood.  And, of course, finishing that commission by the end of the month.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Birds and Bees

Bee Mistress

Last weekend, we drove down to GloryBee Foods in Eugene, OR to pick up our box o' bees.  When we arrived, a demonstration was just about to begin, and I am very glad we managed to participate.  The thing is, we have been interested in keeping bees for years, but Mike has been more motivated.  He took the Master Beekeeper classes, read the books, and watches the videos.  I felt that I had enough responsibility, and couldn't take on one more thing.  But then, we came across a 2nd-hand suit and hat in a size small.  And Mike couldn't squeeze into it.  Now I am the Bee Mistress, and I was very happy to see, in person, how to introduce the bees to their new home.

At home, I removed a little box containing the queen, but was alarmed to see that she was just rolling around in there.  She appeared to be barely alive.  We removed the cork from one end and Mike stuck a gummy bear in the hole, and I placed the queen box in the hive.  Then I put the rest of the bees, in their opened box, into the empty top story of the hive and replaced the lid. 

Then I went inside and called my friend Damian, who keeps bees.  (Look up Taborhood Honey to see how he has been putting hives all around his Portland neighborhood, spreading the bee love.)  He reassured me that the hive would be ok, but that I needed to replace the queen asap.  Since it was Saturday evening, I had to wait until Monday morning to call GloryBee.

GloryBee was great about immediately sending a new queen, no questions asked.  Damian explained that I needed to locate the original queen (if she survived) and assassinate her before introducing the new queen.  So, on Wednesday morning, I put on my gear and opened the hive.  I used my smoker, though it seemed only to irritate the bees.  It is a very unique experience to deliberately disturb a swarm of 13,000 (or so) bees who are otherwise minding their own business.  I removed one frame after another and searched for the tiny blue dot that would indicate the queen.  The bees were not thrilled with this.  I used a soft brush to push them around in more clustered areas.  I turned over dead bees laying in the bottom of the box. But I never found the blue dot.  I felt pretty sure she had died, or that they had eaten the gummy bear, stormed her box, and killed her for being a poor excuse for a queen.

When the new queen was delivered later that day, I just tacked her box between two frames and left it.  I haven't checked back (though I've called and emailed Damian to make sure I'm doing everything right.)

I was impressed by the comb that is already growing on the frames.  When I'm tending the hive, I move slowly, gently, and I feel supremely calm and focused.  I expect to be stung, but it hasn't happened yet.  Despite the original plan for me to serve only as moral support on this beekeeping enterprise, I am comfortable with my lead role.  I feel a strong attachment for, and gratitude toward the hive, and I'm looking forward to a life with bees.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Mosaic Conference and Studio Update

Last week, Anouk and I flew to Chicago to attend the 10th Annual Society of American Mosaic Artist Conference.  My mom, who lives in Michigan, drove to meet us so that we could spend some time together between my conference activities.  I skipped all of the workshops, partly out of financial necessity, and also to spend more time with my mom.  We hadn't seen each other in about 3 years!  We enjoyed walking in Millennium Park and a trip to the American Girl Store, which was the highlight for Anouk.

The highlight for me was the mini-salon and silent auction, where I presenteed the piece pictured above, titled "Melting."  After seeing the other absolutely outstanding mosaic art included, I had lost some confidence.  However, the piece was very well received and sold after 11 bids.  I reached Nirvana when I saw the incoming SAMA president, the esteemed Shug Jones, writing a bid.  I was floating!

I was inspired by presentations by amazing mosaic artists and the stunning accompanying mosaic exhibit at the Smith Museum of Stained Glass at the Navy Pier.  I made a few new friends from Colorado, Montreal and Turkey.  Over 400 artists attended this year's conference, from 14 different countries, and the sense of comeraderie was profound.   SAMA artists are generous about sharing techniques and information, which results in very high standards of artistic integrity and quality.  Every year, the artists push the envelope a bit further, and mosaic is becoming highly regarded throughout the art world.  I feel so lucky to have discovered this medium just at the beginning of a mosaic renaissance, and to be acquainted with so many outstanding artists in the field. 

This past year, I began to look carefully at my own work, and to take it more seriously.  At the age of 40, I am questioning how I wish to pursue my work during the next decade.  I have increasingly mixed feelings about creating functional and small mosaic pieces for recycled art festivals where I typically earn about $4-10/hour for my painstaking work.  I collect salvaged materials, custom cut each piece and file the edges so that people can safely handle the items, and there are always a number of pieces that are not good enough, or that get damaged.  Then I haul all of it, plus the displays, down to Oregon.  I spend a day carrying heavy stuff, killing my back, setting up.  And then, contrary to my natural introversion, I force myself to talk to strangers for a day or two, and to listen to them say to each other that they could make the same thing, or buy something similar for much less at Walmart.  At my last sale, I wound up right next to a very nice woman who had hundreds of small, simple mosaics done on picture frames for as little as $13.  I felt like the fair-trade import store when Cost Plus moves in next door.

At the same time, I love the recycled art movement, and these fairs offer us a chance to take a little family trip and for me to get out of my hermitage now and then.  I would just like to see the standards raised for recycled art in the same way they have been for mosaic, for all artists to ask for and receive a liveable wage, and for more mutual support instead of competition.  But then, I'm learning these lessons after 10 years working in mosaic, and 7 years as a full-time artist.

In the meantime, here's what is on my schedule at the moment: Next week, I'll be installing the final stage of the Olympia Pediatrics entryway.  You will be able to find me on scaffolding over the doors on clear days, until it is finished.  I will be teaching a glass-on-glass mosaic workshop on April 3rd at Hexen Glass in Olympia.  On April 9th, I'll install a backsplash in Portland that features a forest meadow with sun rays shining through.  Soon after that, I will begin work on a public art project for the Federal Way Senior Center/Food Bank, which is a 2.5' x 4' exterior panel featuring figures working together in a garden framed by flowers, veggies and mountains.  Between these, I am facilitating a 3' x 5' mosaic with students from Choice High School that will be installed at a Mason County park, and I hope to complete a 100 s.f. mosaic at Anouk's school with the students.  I am also making more individual pieces for galleries and the next Cracked Pots fair in July.  I'm busy!

Spring has sprung!

This is our new hive body, purchased from Steamboat Lil's, near Olympia, WA.  Mike bought it from Lil directly, unassembled, and spent Sunday gluing and nailing it together.  I will be painting the exterior this week.  We originally planned to use a top-bar hive, which is much less expensive and easy to build, but a beekeeper explained to us in detail why this would be a huge mistake for first-time beekeepers.  I am terrible at retaining information, but here is what I do remember:  When you remove the honey from your top-bar hive, you have to remove all of the infrastructure that they built, and they need to start all over.  Their energy goes into building a storage facility, rather than producing honey, which greatly limits honey supply and drains the bees.  We have decided to put off using that method until we feel fairly competent keeping bees, and have more hives.  For now, we will have only one, which is not ideal.

Turkey update: Tom became even more aggressive after my last post, attacking Mike viciously, clawing him through his jeans.  I emailed a couple of heritage turkey breeders for advice, and I was told that we need to cull that tom right away.  Right after that, our female turkey began to nest and lay eggs.  Now, when I enter the coop, I carry a long pole that I keep pointed in his direction.  I feel like I'm using a lance to defend myself against a very silly foe.  We have ordered some baby turkeys, but we will also let our pair breed and see what happens.  But Mr. Tom will likely end up in the freezer by summer.

Mike has all of the raised beds prepared for planting, and I put potatoes in the ground on March 16th.  This week, Anouk has spring break so we'll be planting peas, carrots, turnips, beets and greens.  Nicer weather means she is playing outside more, allowing Mike and I to work in the garden and studio much more than we can during winter.  She builds fairy houses, collects worms, and we are turning her sandbox into a raised bed garden just for her.

Anouk and I were in Chicago last week, and while we were away, Mike took up all of the remaining lawn in our front and back yards.  His plan is to till it all up, level it out, and re-seed it with a more maintenance-free grass/herb mix.  We are hoping to switch to a manual lawn mower this year, which is timely, since our gas mower has died.

Thanks to Mike's dedicated, ongoing efforts on weekends all through winter, the garden is relatively weed-free and waiting for the busy work of planting to begin.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Romancing the Turkey

In case you haven't been following my story, we began raising turkeys 3 years ago.  The first year, we raised 3 domestic breed turkeys, which are bred to grow so large that they cannot procreate, fly, or even carry their own weight after reaching full size.  Our expert farmer friends, Paul & Kirsten, came over and butchered them in our driveway in exchange for the largest.  That turkey was so huge, they had to saw it in half to fit it in their oven.

Last year, we ordered heritage turkeys, which can fly, live full lives without their legs breaking under their own weight, and are capable of procreation.  However, heritage birds are so rare now that the mating instinct is a bit fuzzy, from what I understand.  Since almost all turkeys are bred through artificial insemination, there is little information about turkey mating, and even the turkeys could use some sex ed courses.

We butchered (that is, Paul and Kirsten did) five turkeys in November, leaving a tom and two hens in hopes of seeing them hatch a slough of babies this spring.  Having read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (highly recommended!) I have been watching for any signs of sexual maturity similar to those she describes in her book.  (We lost one hen to a raccoon attack.)

I've mentioned recently that Tom is acting like a Vegas showgirl, strutting around with his feathers all fluffy, rattling his wings to make a noise like a gentle motor.  He chases me whenever I turn away from him, then shies away when I turn back toward him.  I felt terrible when I learned that he scared the bejeesus out of our young housesitter last weekend.  But, despite months of turkey machismo, I have not seen an egg or any attempts by Tom to get jiggy with his woman.

Until this morning!  She has been approaching me for a couple of days as if she believes I am a potential suitor, sitting down next to me and bowing her head.  I used to sit and pet my turkeys when they did this, but I have since learned that it is mating behavior.  Still, today, I couldn't resist giving her a little pet on the back, which triggered an immediate reaction from Tom.  I thought he was going to attack me!  He ran over, making all kinds of noise, and proved that he could do for her what I never can.  Afterward, he looked like he wasn't sure what had just happened, but she appeared refreshed and satisfied.

From what I have read, even if the turkeys are mating, egg fertilization is tricky.  So, I'm not expecting this to result in hatching chickens right off the bat, but it is a very promising step in the right direction.  We are about to order a shipment of turkeys again, but I hope that, in future years, we will feel confident in our turkeys' ability to hatch and raise their own young.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Early Spring on the farm and in the studio

Practicing my booth set-up on our front porch helps me to assemble and arrange my space when I get to the actual sale, without finding that I am missing necessities.

This was supposed to be a crazy-busy week of preparations for the Cracked Pots Ungarden Recycled Art Fair coming up on Saturday, March 6th at The Grand Lodge in Forest Grove, OR.  A few mosaics are yet unfinished in the studio, waiting for coats of paint on the frames or grout touch-ups.  However, Anouk became sick with a flu this week and was home for three days, requiring my full attention.  I had to focus on what I could accomplish in the house, including bookkeeping, cleaning, and sewing projects.  Mike has been away at a conference, so I didn't even have nights to catch up.  I had to let go of my expectations and just accept that I would be short a couple of the larger, more expensive items I hoped to sell. 

Here it is Thursday and I leave tomorrow, so it is too late to finish in time to pack the work.  It will have to wait for the next show, or I will submit it to a gallery, which means I pay the gallery 50% if it sells.

In the meantime, I have one commission waiting for installation, a small one nearly completed, a sheet of wedi on my easel with the design drawn on for a backsplash, and I'm expecting a deposit for a small public art project that will be complete at the end of April.  I am a little bit overwhelmed.

The garden is waiting to be tilled and for planting to begin.  I am hoping to get out there next week, finally.  I have planted some greens and peas in my kitchen garden, since it is right outside the back door.  Rhubarb, chives and leeks are coming back strong on their own, as are all of the berries throughout the garden.

Our chickens are laying again!  In fact, we are getting 4-5 eggs each day from only 6 birds, which is a much better ratio than last year.  We really missed the full nutrition of fresh eggs over the past 2 months. One of our first projects will be to divide half of the chicken yard and enclose it with chicken wire, including the top.  The chickens will then have access to an outdoor area where they will be safe from raccoons during the winter and when we are not home.  Most of the time, we will allow them to free range as usual.

We had a remarkably mild winter, very much in contrast with the rest of the country.  We have been enjoying an early spring,which we expect to pay for this summer, as a drought is anticipated.  There was not enough snowfall in the mountains to provide adequate water supply through summer, so we are preparing to conserve water in coming months.  I wish we had rain barrels - something to put into future plans.

Our big, new thing this spring will be the addition of bees to the farm.  We ordered one hive, which we will pick up in Eugene in April.  In the meantime, we will need to invest about $200-300 in a hive structure and equipment.  We've been told that it is important to have more than one hive, but one is as much as we can afford right now.

Mr. Tom (turkey) has been displaying nonstop macho behavior lately.  He fluffs himself up and struts around his mate all day, shimmying to beat the band.  He is intimidated by me, and sidles away when I approach him, but as soon as I turn my back, he runs at me, pretending to chase me off.  Sometimes I humiliate him by picking him up and holding him, just for fun.  I can't wait to see if they can successfully mate and hatch some turkey chicks.  So far, no turkey eggs.

It is another gorgeous day out there and I have a lot of catching up to do on this one day I have to myself before a busy weekend.  Off I go to try to sell my recyled art to the masses, wondering as always if this is the best use of my time and creativity.  The fact is, though it would probably make more financial sense for me to be at work in the studio on commissions and higher-quality art panels, I enjoy the opportunity to leave home for the weekend and participate in something.  We get to take a small trip as a family, stay in a hotel, swim in the pool, hear some live music, and see all of the fantastic work that the other resourceful artists bring to the show.  Last year, I broke even after travel expenses.  This year, I hope to get paid.   

Friday, February 12, 2010

A thank you to my supportive family.

In honor of Valentines Day, I feel inclined to write a few words in praise of my spouse and child.  I find myself at age 40, living in a beautiful place with all of my essential needs met, working for myself doing what I love.  If not for Mike and Anouk, my life would be very different.  No doubt, I would be working either in social services or in some other administrative position, doing artwork as a hobby. 

Mike and I became friends initially due to our shared interest in art.  We used to schedule art nights every week, inviting our friends, but often finding that only the two of us made it.  We would go to the Seattle Art Museum and galleries, stopping for drinks along the way, discussing our difficult relationships (with other people.)  We both rented art studios in the same building and would go on supply runs together.

Now, Mike has little time for his artistic pursuits.  His camera has not been touched in years and he no longer makes books.  But he has thrown his creative energy full force into the garden and associated buildings, and he teaches glass art at his high school. 

When I had Anouk, I lamented the loss of my personal time.  For a couple of years, I had no free time, and I felt my identity as an artist had disappeared.  Little by little, she became more independent, and I found time to make art whenever I could.  I learned to do things I could manage with her next to me or on my back, and worked on mosaic when Mike was home.  Mike has always supported my choice to stay home with her, and to start and pursue a business, even though he has to work 3 extra hours per day for us to break even.

The beginning of a new career.
A few years ago, I realized I really was a working artist, and it was actually because of Anouk.  I had to become resourceful to find a way to earn money, create art, and be available as a mother.  So, this Valentines Day, I will celebrate the two of them for forcing me to get my act together in more ways than I can describe.

The vulnerability of putting work in galleries

This is an example of art that doesn't look nice in peoples' homes.

I have been selling my work for almost 20 years, beginning with naive oil pastel paintings, then ceramic figurines and wire jewelry, handmade cards, and eventually, the work I do now.

As an artist, you dream of galleries coming to you, begging to represent you and your brilliant work. But, for most of us, it is a very different experience. We venture out into the art world without maps, having no idea where to go or how to talk about our work. I still don't have a map, but I thought I would write about a few lessons I've learned.

The first time I approached a gallery (unannounced), I brought a few examples of my weird oil pastels of stylized naked women, sometimes depicting my young feminist idealogy. The owner bluntly informed me that my work was not a good fit for the gallery. She said, "Our clients like to buy things that will look nice in their homes." I quickly shuffled out with my invisible tail between my legs. However, I sucked up my pride, went to another shop (not gallery) and found the owner happy to accept my linocut-printed cards on consignment. The lesson: Don't expect to be accepted by the first gallery you approach. Prepare for rejection and know that your work may fit in certain venues, but not others.

A couple of years later, I had apprenticed with a ceramic artist, and had a box of ceramic figurines. I was still heavily influenced by the women's movement, but these were more celebratory. Having moved to Albuquerque, I took them to the local women's bookstore, where the owner took them all and gave me a sound lecture about pricing. She pointed out that, by pricing my work so low, I was not only paying myself poorly, but also underpricing other artists. We put fair prices on the work, and they all sold. The lesson: Compare your prices to others in your market. We all need a fair wage.

Around that same time, I was making wire and bead jewelry. I took my collection to a really cool gift shop in Madrid, NM (one of my favorite places.) The owner was very kind to discuss pricing with me, and she accepted my work on commission, and it sold well. I continued to supply her with jewelry until I moved back to WA 8 months later. After a while, I couldn't reach the shop or owner. A friend went to the shop for me to find that it had closed. I was never paid for the items I left there. The lesson: Be cautious about leaving your work where you can't monitor the sales. Make sure you have a written contract with items and prices listed for your records.

For many years after that, I only sold at a cooperative gallery in Seattle and at independent shows that I arranged at cafes. If you are just starting out, this is a very good option for getting your work seen. Look for cafes and restaurants that have rotating art shows and ask for an appointment with the curator. Take photos of your work and remember that your art is going to represent the business while it is hanging. Choose businesses that are more likely to accept your work. Don't take edgy art to a conservative tea shop, for instance. The disadvantage is that you are responsible for all promotion and sales. But most cafes don't take a commission, so it gives the artist a great way to sell art at low risk. Some will even allow you to hold an opening party, which is a great opportunity to network.

After working in mosaic for a few years, I heard about a gallery in Seaside that specializes in mosaic. My husband was leading a field trip there, so he took one of my mosaics to the gallery. This was my first time putting work in a real gallery, and the owner was kind enough to alter my mosaic to make it gallery-ready. She removed the eye-hooks I had screwed into the top and replaced them with d-rings on the back. Then she painted over the mess of grout I had left on the back. The piece sold fairly quickly, and I received a check in the mail. The lesson: Always use d-rings and woven wire for 2-D artwork. Make sure it looks neat and tidy on all sides (even the back.)
-Be prepared to set your pricing. It helps to go in with a price in mind, and negotiate from there. Most galleries take 50%, so know how little you are willing to accept. If you know you can sell something for more than you will get from the gallery, it may not be worth it. On the other hand, selling at a gallery looks good on a resume, you reach a new audience, the gallery promotes you and takes care of taxes, and your work will look much nicer than it will on the wall of a cafe.
-Be professional. (Do as I say; not as I do.) I tend to talk too much out of nervousness, openly express my insecurities, and sometimes realize my work isn't ready to hang. Just recently, on one of those days where I was one step behind all day, I took work to a gallery without any d-rings attached. I had my screw-gun with me and ran (literally) to a hardware store, the second one I had gone to that didn't carry d-rings. I bought some drawer-pulls that resembled d-rings and tried to attach them back at the gallery. They broke. I did all of this with the gallery owner tending her customers around me. I am still working through my shame.

I hope some budding artist stumbles across this and learns from my mistakes. Good luck!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Weak point.

We made it through most of winter using homegrown, frozen food as the basis of our meals, along with purchased staples like oil, grains, milk, salt, etc. It hasn't been awful, though I can tell Mike is not always thrilled with dinner.

Despite the many signs of spring (sprouts, buds, frogs, longer days) we all seem to be exhausted lately, and craving comfort foods. I've been increasingly uninspired by the available ingredients. Anouk refuses to eat most of what I make, so I've resorted to buying whatever it takes to feed her. (She subsists on blueberry bagels, tofu, cereal and milk, pasta, and "fresh" fruit & veggies.) I baked and prepped a pumpkin last week, only to let it sit in the fridge. Today I'll throw it to the animals before it goes completely bad. And there is one pumpkin left in the pantry (not to mention many containers of pumpkin in the freezer that I've been ignoring.)

Last weekend, Mike went to town to get a few staples, but came home with loads of groceries from Costco, including frozen sweet potato fries, chicken nuggets, sun chips, ground turkey, fruit, apple juice, and lots of albacore tuna. I have to admit, it has been a relief to have something different and easy to make, as much as I cringe thinking about the many issues surrounding each of these items. I think we needed a little diversion.

Yesterday, I reorganized the garage freezer, and was delighted to find a bag of cauliflower and one of swiss chard. Our only vegetables since December have been string beans and zucchini, so it was like finding treasure. Hopefully, we will get back on the slow food track when we deplete this stash of groceries, but right now, I am longing for a thriving garden offering us one juicy crop after another.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


For a few years, I've been asked to participate in Arts Day at the WA State Capitol. On Feb. 2nd each year, arts advocates gather at the capitol to meet with legislators and make a case for including the arts in the State budget. In the past, I felt too shy and busy to join in, so I politely declined. This year, I recognized that I have been trying to get in on some of that funding, and that it is valuable for our community, and that the arts are seriously in jeopardy during these difficult financial times. So, I agreed to go.

Getting there was not easy. I had to get up extra early to be ready, take care of the homestead, and get Anouk to school, and I knew it wasn't possible to make it there for the 8:30am orientation. I made it to Olympia at about 8:40, but there was not a parking spot to be found. When I did find one, there was a meter that required change. I dropped in all of my change, and stole all of Anouk's change, and I was still a nickel short. While I desperately searched for one, the machine ate my money.

I had to pee so bad I was nearly in tears. But I continued to drive in search of a spot. I found one with a meter that accepted credit cards, only to realize that I had left my wallet on the counter at home! So, I would not be able to run errands or get food after the meeting, and I was already hungry. And my bladder was about to burst.

I kept driving around, until I found 2-hour parking quite a long walk from the Capitol. And I made it to the orientation before it was over, and there were donuts to appease my hunger.

There were 4 of us presenting to Kathy Haige,a legislator for my district. Stephanie Johnson, Arts organizer for the City of Olympia, introduced us, making the whole process feel easy and comfortable. She began by acknowledging how crappy a position the legislators are in right now, having to cut EVERYTHING, and that it is difficult to make a case for arts funding right now.

I spoke about how thriving arts contribute to a healthy local economy, using the example of cities like Port Townsend. People will drive there from far away because it is a fun, interesting place to visit. Those people stay in hotels, eat out, and buy stuff. If planning for Grays Harbor County incorporated more focus on the arts, I think we could harness the tourist factor to bring more money to the cities along the route to Ocean Shores, and a big part of that is art. I also talked about art in schools, using examples from Mike's glass arts program to make my point.

Sara Utter, a printmaker from Shelton, also talked about how artists are valid members of the work force, adding funds to the local economy through studio rental and sales of their work.

Luckily for us, Kathy Haige turns out to be a strong advocate for the arts, with ideas of her own for integrating art into school curriculum. So, we left with a spring in our step, stopping to admire a painting that Ms. Haige did in the stairwell of her building, turning a gash in the plaster into a mountain range.

I drove home regretting that I had not agreed to participate in this effort before, and feeling committed to being a more active citizen from now on. Getting there may have been hard, but sharing my experience with a legislator was easy. I thought about how much opportunity we all have to influence government by calling and writing to our officials, but most of us (me included) spend our energy complaining to our friends instead. I am grateful to the Arts Commission and to Stephanie for organizing this event and holding our hands through the process. I feel more proactive and more aware of how government works, on a practical level. And I encourage everyone to find ways to engage with government, rather than simply railing against it.

More raccoon devastation.

This is just a brief update on the homestead:

The loss of our roosters has resulted in the end of egg production here on the farm. We were down to only one egg per day from our six remaining chickens, but we haven't had an egg now in a little over two weeks. It is possible that this is part of the natural cycle, and that longer days will soon bring a return of eggs. However, roosters encourage the eggs, so we are working with our friend Paul (from Barnyard Gardens, of course) to locate a new king for the flock.

We have had a Muscovy duck-hen for a few years. Muscovies are unusual looking ducks that can fly, and are not related to other species of domestic ducks. We did have a flock at one time, but all were killed years ago during a cold spell (the coons are especially resourceful when temps drop), except for Mrs. Duck. Last Feb., she became very broody, laying eggs in the coop, refusing to leave them for many days, and defending them aggressively from me. Of course, I had to remove them because I knew they were not fertile, and didn't want a nest of rotting eggs in the coop. So, when friends let us know they had extra Muscovy drakes available, we took one. He was introduced to Mrs. Duck on Valentines Day last year, and they bonded quickly. Mr. and Mrs. Duck have been inseparable for nearly a year.

Poor Mr. Duck has one bad wing, so he cannot fly. Most of the time, Mrs. Duck would sleep with him in the coop, but sometimes, she flew away when I closed the coop, refusing to be confined. She would perch on the barn roof overnight, and I hoped she knew how to evade the blood-thirsty raccoons. I would find her every morning, at the coop door, eagerly waiting for me to let Mr. Duck out.

Sadly, last week, I found her body, ripped apart in the chicken yard. You would think I would be accustomed to this, and I am probably much less sensitive than when we started, but it is very depressing. The worst is seeing poor, gimpy Mr. Duck waddling around all by himself. He looks lost and lonely.

Muscovies have a reputation for being delicious. Apparently, the meat is not greasy and gamey like other ducks. So, Mike has plans to execute Mr. Duck sometime soon. I have a very hard time with the idea of eating him, but I am torn. I do not want to get a new duck hen. We have tried to keep ducks too many times, without success. And keeping unproductive animals on our farm is making less and less sense. (I am even thinking about the wisdom of keeping our goats.) I may adjust to the idea. Mr. Duck has always viewed me as the enemy. He hisses at me and tries to peck my head when I enter the coop. And a part of me is curious about that tasty Muscovy meat, I must admit. We'll see.