Tuesday 28 December 2010

The Twilight Time Between the Years

As we enter this twilight time between the end of Christmas and the beginning of the new year, I thought I’d put up a quick post.  The Germans call this period “between the years” which I find a delightful way to describe it. 

It’s been a wonderful holiday time.  The boys were beside themselves the entire time – my older boy still has black circles under his eyes from lack of sleep due to the excitement leading up to the arrival of Santa Claus.  He’s 9 and his unwavering belief in Santa’s magic is magic itself to witness. 

We have had lots of visits and phone calls.  Lots of good food.  Lots of snow for the boys to toboggan over and make snowmen out of and for us to take walks through.  Lots of candles.  And lots of music.   

One of the things I love most about the holidays is the music.  On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, we had a neighbour and his mother (a very spry 85 year old with a mind as sharp as a tack) and a friend of theirs over for coffee.    

At some point, our lady guest gestured to the piano and asked if we could sing a few carols.  So we did.  She knew all of the words to all of the verses of the German carols.  We sang a mix of German and English ones.  It was a beautiful impromptu picking up of a tradition we had going in Canada where, during the holidays, we’d have carol sings with relatives, and each year an informal Christmas concert with a few of my husband’s voice students. 

We sang as my stepson, who stayed with us over Christmas, busied himself with making us a fabulous bolognaise sauce for Boxing Day.  
Later that evening, after the guests had left, we lit the candles on the tree.  There is nothing so profoundly silent and still as a tree with lighted candles on it – a tradition which I knew only from movies and Christmas cards until fairly recently.    

The other musical highlight came on Boxing Day.  My husband was hired to sing the bass solos in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at one of the local churches.  I, and a few others, were asked to join in the choir for the concert, which we gladly did. 

I believe in the power of music to elevate us and to bring us closer to a magic and to wonders which I can’t, and don’t necessarily feel the need to, name.  Being amongst a sea of voices and some truly amazing instrumentalists, performing such divine music was a wondrous experience.  

Of course, there was also lots of Johnny Mathis, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and Judy Garland doing their thing from the CD and record player which Christmas wouldn’t be complete without. 

And now, we have the quiet time between the years, but only briefly.  In a couple of days we will be visiting with some relatives and family friends of my husband’s in Stuttgart for a few days to see in the new year.  There will be more catching up, more good food, more tobogganing, and, I hope, more music.  

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Holiday Greetings!

 Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the New Year.

(Couldn't resist adding one of my helper.)

 I'll be back at the computer after the holidays.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Warning: excessive use of the pronoun "I" in this post.

I sometimes think that it would be much easier to be solely a writer, or solely a visual artist.  All of my time, energy, and attention could be focused on that one thing.  But I’m not: as much as I have tried to choose one over the other I can’t, I’m just not wired that way. 

It’s further complicated since within each of these spheres there are sub-categories: under writing there are works of long fiction, short fiction, and poems, writing for adults and for children; under visual art there are large abstracts in oil, and small collages with black ink drawings.
I need and love the interplay and cross-pollination between these different creative forms, but at times it can leave me feeling uncomfortably pulled in different directions.  When working on one thing, I’ll suddenly find one of the others clamouring for my attention:  I’ll be working on the manuscript for my middle grade story when a character will come across a plant I want to use in an ink drawing; or I’ll be working on a collage and want to apply something I’ve discovered there to an oil painting; or I’ll be painting and find my thoughts drifting to the character in one of the short stories on my plate and realize that he should actually be a she.  

While this is often productive, it can also feel as though there’s a ferret doing a tango in my head and I end up not being able to concentrate on, or to do anything at all.  

At these times, and they can last a few hours, or a few days, I sometimes get so frustrated that I occasionally question the whole ruddy creative pursuit and wonder whether I should just pack it all in – all of it -- and look for a proper job somewhere and spend my spare time watching TV and doing Sudoku puzzles. 
But I can’t.  There’s nothing I’d rather be doing and I feel grateful for it, no matter how confounding it can sometimes be, and no matter how little financial sense it might make.  (And, God knows, it’s not about making financial sense.  Very few of us creative types are unfamiliar with the sound of the wolf poking its snuffling snout under the front door.)        

For me, it is about both faith in art and love of the process.  The other day on her endlessly inspiring blog, Terri Windling referred to a Jeanette Winterson quote.  In it, Winterson talks about “every work of art being an act of faith, or we wouldn’t bother to do it.”   
What I keep coming back to, or rather what keeps me coming back, is the sheer joy in the process of creating and the firm belief that it is, somehow, important. 

One thing I've recently had to work on is to better structure my working time.  It's difficult when deadlines are not externally imposed, but deadlines are vital so I've started to write up a schedule for myself - with short term and longer term projects given arbitrary deadlines.  I also have a box of index cards where I keep information about the submission dates for various magazines and journals.  I'm going to put together another box with information about art galleries and restaurants that display art and other opportunities for showing my paintings and collages.  

The other thing which I need to work on is having the discipline not to give in to what may seem like a productive sidetracking from the thing I'm working on, but which is actually a diabolically well disguised bit of procrastination.  "You hoo!  Over here!  It's me, your manuscript.  Put down that paintbrush and come change the colour of your protagonist's eyes."  I  Must learn when I'm being distracted by something that really matters, and when it's just, well, distraction. 

In light of all of this, and perhaps in lieu of having any better ending up my sleeve today, I'll draw this post to a close and get back to my paintbox.

Happy Solstice.  

Monday 13 December 2010

A crazy-quilt of a post.

The past couple of weeks have been a fractured blur as the year draws to an alarmingly quick end.  I have wanted to put up a new post here for a while, but haven't found a clear focus for one, so in keeping with the way things have been, this post will be completely scattered and random.

Winter has returned after a brief retreat.  This is the view from my writing-painting-collage-making-thinking-room.  It has been one of the most beautiful winters I can remember.

The other day I was at our local stationary shop - an old time shop run by a lovely woman who wears her hair in a bun and who uses a proper, non-computerized cash register.  (I would put a link to her shop, but there is certainly no Internet presence.)  She always has a beautiful selection of art postcards and I picked these three up.  On the wall next to my writing desk is a collection of prints and maps and quotes, and on the wall in front of my writing desk is an ever changing collection of postcards. 

(Chagal  "Over Witebsk")

(Dulac  "Snow Queen")

(Patten-Wilson  "Winter")

These latest postcards have joined the current group, many of which have to do with seventeenth and eighteenth century London: a couple of views of London, Hogarth's famous "Gin Lane", a page from the "Bill of Mortality: September 1665".  These are bits of  inspiration for a story that I began last year.  It had started life as a young adult historical fantasy, but I realized that it actually wants to be an adult historical fantasy.  So, I printed out what I had, punched holes, put the sheets into a binder, and put it aside to stew while I worked on other things.

I returned to work on a young adult urban fantasy which I had written a very, very bad first draft of a couple of years ago.  Things had been going along just fine, when I realized - just a few days ago - that it actually wants to be a middle grade story and wants really, really badly to be set in the early eighteenth century.  There was a split second when I said, but you can't do that, what about all of the pages which I've already typed?  Luckily, the story didn't give a damn about how many pages I'd typed.  It won me over, and once again I have that wonderful, fluttery-stomach feeling you get when you know you're on the right track with something.  

I brought out my binders and started to look at things anew. 

These notebooks filled with scraps of information and lists of facts and figures about early eighteenth century London came out of storage.  It was very nice to be able to pull them out again.  I had found myself thinking about that time, roughly the first quarter of the eighteenth century, and was missing it.  It's good to go back, and I hope that I can cobble something worthwhile together.   

(Japanese & Florentine papers with ink and acrylic: framed 19x19 cm.)

On the visual front, there's been very little happening apart from completing and finally framing more collages.  This past Friday, we had a group show at the studio where I've been renting a room these past few months.  It was a nice show with a good turnout for a cold, snowy night.  I will, however, be giving my notice there.  The decision to take the studio in the first place was a big one for me (even low rent is still rent), and I'm generally someone who prefers to work in as private quarters as possible, but it seemed like a good opportunity to work with a group of people whom I like.  Unfortunately group dynamics being what they are, and given the history that some of the members share, the weeks before the show were so unpleasantly and unnecessarily stressful, that I've decided it's not the place for me.  

It's funny.  I wasn't going to mention the issue of the studio on the blog, but it's just sort of happened.  This whole blogging thing is still so new and strange, and I haven't quite figured out where my parameters lie. 

I have been enjoying thinking about how to organize my tiny room at home - which I'm very fortunate to have - and shall start streamlining it even further to make it into a multi-multi-multi purpose room. This might be the motivation I need to finally get the piles (plural) of family photos out of the corner, dusted off, and put into albums.  


I did give warning that this might be a crazy sort of a post.

Friday 3 December 2010

Crows and snows and lessons of play

Over the past few days, the city has been blanketed - as in the blanketing of on overly protective mother of her sniffly child - in snow.  It's gorgeous.  And the crows are loving it.

It's been most distracting.  This group of black feathered, grey beaked crows has been playing in the parkette across the street.  They dive and burrow and dance and frolic.

Years ago, in an issue of National Geographic, there was a photo essay on animals at play.  There were photos of a group of crows caught playing on a snowy hill.  They would walk or fly to the top, lie down on their backs, and slide down.  They did it over and over and over again.  Playing.  Not looking for food, or performing some mating ritual, they were simply playing. 

Yesterday we witnessed a solitary crow playing with a red squirrel (though I doubt the squirrel would have called it play).  The crow would swoop down on the squirrel and watch it leap to another branch then come back for another fly-by.  It was amazing to watch.  (So much so that I didn't want to leave to get my camera, hence no photographic evidence.)  Eventually the crow seemed to loose interest and crash landed in a snow drift. 

This frolicking has been distracting me from work on a (final) first draft and more collages.  There is a group show coming up next week which I'll be participating in with a couple of my abstract oils, and, perhaps in anticipation of that, I have not wanted to have anything to do with oil painting for weeks. 

The subjects of these collages have been moving away from poppies to more seasonal plants: Rowan, Holly, Mistletoe.  What I like about those, apart from their form and colour, is that each is imbued with magical associations.  Later I would like to work on other such plants: Elderberry, Mandrake root, Belladonna, Hemlock, etc.  Were I of a more organized disposition, I'd even try to make the collages seasonally, when the plants were at their finest. 

But for now, a Holly Christmas card

(Indian & Japanese papers with ink and acrylic 9x9 cm.)

A Mistletoe Christmas card

(Indian & Japanese papers with ink and acrylic 9x9 cm.)

A framed collage with a sketch of Rowan berries

(Japanese papers with ink and acrylic, framed 19x19 cm.)

And in keeping with the theme of play, I've experimented with a fairy tale themed collage.  While not completely successful, it was a tonne of fun to work on.  I used a background of Japanese Itajime paper (which is lovely to work with.  Back in Toronto, one of my favourite stores is The Paper Place.  I've horded papers from them for years.)  I used craft paper for everything else, and fixed it to a canvas.  Since it's not easy to find inexpensive copies of English language books in Germany, I printed out "The Story of Grandmother" and used that for parts of the collage.  The rest is ink covered in acrylic medium.  

As with so many things, we are often worried about the finished product and forget about process: the pure enjoyment of being in the middle of creating something, regardless of the outcome.  As I mentioned, this was not an entire success, but I had a lot of fun making it, and it has given me further ideas of things to try.  As with the crows,  it's been a very playful winter so far.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Markets, Mead, and a Mediaeval Christmas

Munich is often called the most Italian of German cities.  In our time here, we've come to see the truth in this: people of all ages love to get together to eat and talk and drink in a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere.  In the warm weather months the Isar river - which runs as a seam between the east and west sides of the city - is teeming with clusters of people sitting around campfires grilling and chatting, sometimes singing and playing guitar or bongos.  The Biergartens are likewise full of families and friends who bring picnics to the beer tables, some even bring tablecloths and cushions for the benches, and sit for hours under the chestnut trees.  Oktoberfest is probably the most extreme example of this desire to get together and have a good time.  (One which I haven't yet braved.)

Once the Oktoberfest tents and Masses (1litre beer mugs, or simply what you get when you order "a beer" at Oktoberfest) have been cleared away, the next opportunity for celebration is the Christmas Market, called the  Weihnachtsmarkt or Kristkindl Markt.  There are at least a dozen Christmas Markets throughout the city.  They start the first weekend of Advent, and most carry on through the month of December. 

One of my favourites is the Mittelaltermarkt.  Late yesterday afternoon, I took the boys there.  It's built in a circle, more of less, and designed to look like a Mediaeval town. 

One of the things which is so charming about this Market is that so many of the products are made locally and by hand.  There are wooden bows and arrows, wooden swords and shields for children, wooden bowls, utensils, and instruments.  There is an iron smith who makes reproductions of historical swords and helmets, a felt maker who makes beautiful hats and accessories, a distiller who makes various fruit Schnapps. A jeweller sat in his stall working on a piece of silver. 

Along with the wares of Mediaeval life, there are the smells and tastes of grilled pork, smoked fish, and boiled dumplings.  The people on the other sides of the stands were dressed in period-style heavy woollen cloaks and furs.  (Any fleece and microfibers hidden underneath.) 

To drink, they offer an exciting Feuer Bowle, a clay chalice of flaming wine and strong liqueur.  I opted for the tamer warm mead served in a knobby clay cup.  The boys shared a bag of warm, candied almonds.  There were tables made of tree stumps with candles on them to add the the atmosphere.

On weekends the stage is filled with performers: magicians, musicians, acrobats.  But yesterday, it stood empty.  Waiting.

A lovely way to start the season.  We went home with cold feet, but warm bellies.

Monday 22 November 2010


 (Japanese papers with ink and acrylic. ca. 16.5 x 16.5 cm.)

 Lately poppies have been making their way into my collages.

 (Japanese and Florentine papers with ink and acrylic. ca. 9 x 9 cm.)

The first poppies I knew were of two varieties: the plastic Remembrance Day ones sold on street corners and in subway stations; and the ones creating a blazing, crimson field in a Monet painting.  The first time I saw a real one was on an unlikely, grotty Toronto street, years and years ago.  It seemed to grow up from the very cement right next to the metal post of a street sign.  I stopped and stared for longer than I should have.

 (Japanese papers with ink and acrylic. ca. 9 x 9 cm.)

Such a strong and fragile flower.  Exotic and intoxicating.  A shock of red on the most delicate, tissue paper petals.  A drop of blood from a doomed queen as she sits at her window with her needle and her dreams.   

Wednesday 17 November 2010

A November walk with mistletoe and crows and frost-bitten apples

Naked branches and a grey-white sky.  The last frost-wrinkled apples clinging to a November tree.   


Dream-black crows foraging.

Puddles reflecting the drowsy, winter-ready trees.

Surprises underfoot.

A beech tree, still holding onto many of its copper leaves.  Up in the top, a ball of mistletoe.

And more mistletoe.

And more.  This cluster just close enough to see its translucent, creamy-yellow-white berries. The season is changing.  A mantle of quiet darkness and introspection settles over everything.  Winter is coming.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Books to read while the frozen earth sleeps.

Cailleach, The Old Woman of Winter, has woken up and is starting her journey across the land, staff in hand banging it against the ground to send the earth into a frozen slumber.  The days are getting shorter, the nights longer and lately books have been a topic in our home.  

With two boys who are now no longer spending every waking moment with their neighbour-friends in the grassy court-yard behind our flat, we have the opportunity to read more to them.  I have wanted to put together a pile of books, chapter books and collections of short stories, to read to them over the winter months.  The problem was what would appeal to a 9 year old who devours books by himself, and a 6 year old who is just learning to decipher words.  

After rummaging through the shelves, I put together most of the books in the pile above.  From the bottom up they are the: "The Complete Winnie-The-Pooh & The House At Pooh Corner." by A.A. Milne and illustrated wonderfully and whimsically by E.H.Shepard.  We've been reading these stories for a few years, but no matter how many times the boys have heard them, they don't grow tired of them.  I missed out on these as a child, and am delighted to have had to opportunity to discover them now: they are beyond brilliant.

The next is a retelling of the Arthurian tales by Roger Lancelyn Green: "King Arthur And His Knights Of The Round Table".  Written in the 1950's the wording was at first a bit foreign to the boys, but the author has brought the adventures of Arthur and his Knights to life so well, that they were quickly lost in the action.  Beautiful black and white Illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley don't hurt.  They are rich, but still allow the reader's fantasy to paint pictures.  

Then Tolkien's "The Hobbit."  I've been wanting to put this in the reading queue for a while, but have only been granted permission by my older boy now.  The illustrations are by Alan Lee and they are sumptuous, and gorgeous, and atmospheric, and more than a little bit scary (hence the delayed addition to the queue).  I loved this book as a child and only wish this edition with these illustrations had been around then.  

The next is one which I've recently read and thoroughly enjoyed: "Troll Fell" by Katherine Langrish.  Set in Viking times, it weaves together daily life in a Scandinavia of centuries ago; Scandinavian Folklore; interesting, complicated characters; and an exciting plot.  At first, this was on the solo reading shelf for my older boy, but I've decided that it would be more fun to read it to both boys. 

Before today, the last book on the pile was "Dragon Rider" by German author Cornelia Funke.  It's in translation (I'll have to leave that up to my boys to read it in the original, I don't stand a chance).  I've read a number of her books and have enjoyed them.  They often combine magic, mythological creatures, and a fun plot.  

The top book on the pile was added this morning after a chat my husband and I had last night.  He was reading me random passages from "The Oxford Book of Quotations"  (yes, we know how to have fun) when he came to the section on nursery rhymes.  Scores and scores were referred to by their first one or two lines.  That started the game of how-many-nursery-rhymes-do-you-know?  It was embarrassing.  It was appalling how few he knew, and how fewer I knew.  And many of the ones we did know, we couldn't have gone far beyond the first couple of lines. Our boys, I'm afraid, know even fewer.

It's sad and quite astonishing how quickly things like that can be lost.  (Each Christmas, it gets harder and harder to gather around the piano to sing carols.  Even with sheet music.)  These songs and rhymes that were once so much a part of childhood, are vanishing.  Which is why I've put a copy of "The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes" compiled by Iona and Peter Opie on the pile.  

It's difficult.  On the one hand I don't want to be on some sort of contrived, anacronistic mission to bring back the nursery rhyme.  On the other, I see just how easy it is to loose these things.  Same goes  for Fairy Tales.  As I delve into the world of Fairy Tales as an adult, I'm forever encountering ones I'd never heard of and keep wondering what rock I was born under. 

So, the pile grows.  The earth falls into a long, frigid sleep.  The Old Woman of Winter continues her journey.  And hopefully, when her sister gently re-awakens the earth next year, we will not be completely and utterly fed up with the boys running around the flat reciting Hickory-Dickory-Dock at the top of their lungs.    

PS. This...

...just arrived in the post.  I'm very excited.  It will certainly be added to the pile, though I might have to steal a peek by myself.  Don't think I can wait.