It begins with a trip to the museum…

Rapgaello Sanzio

Last week we took a cultural field trip, visiting the Columbus Museum of Art to view the Dresden Tapestries, based on cartoons by Raphael in 1515-16 and commissioned by Pope Leo X to hang in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Although we had seen tapestries in French chateaux and other European museums, this was our first opportunity to get a little closer and to learn more about how they are made. The bottom line: they are really art times two, the artist’s initial cartoon and the fiber art of the tapestry produced from it.

What is a tapestry?

The more intimate setting of the Columbus museum and the quiet weekday timing offered a perfect opportunity to view the tapestries more closely. A docent gave the group we were with a basic overview of tapestry weaving as well as the history of these particular pieces. Tapestries are a unique fabric art, woven to portray a scene, story or event, often biblical or historic. These tapestries focus on the ministries of Saints Peter and Paul. But more about that later. 

This is the cartoon by Raphael for the tapestry “Christ’s Charge to Peter.” This is just one in a series of ten cartoons.

In essence the tapestry subject is a woven copy of a drawing (known as a cartoon) created by an artist. Tapestries are painstakingly handwoven — most often by European workshops specializing in this art form — with the design on one side of the fabric. To do this, the cartoon is copied (by hand!) and the copy laid face-down on the fabric. The finished tapestry becomes a complete reverse of the original cartoon. The cartoons for the original set of these tapestries were sent to Brussels to be woven in the workshop of Pier van Aelst. They were probably completed in 1520.

About the Raphael tapestries

My knowledge of Raphael was pretty sketchy, so after the museum visit I delved a little more into his life and his role in the Renaissance art world (Of course, it would have been even better if I’d done this homework first!). Along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael is considered one of the three architects of the High Renaissance, a period from as early as 1495 to as late as 1530 of exceptional artistic accomplishment in Rome and Florence, Italy.

Artistic temperaments played a part in Renaissance art. Historians point out that Michelangelo was no fan of Raphael and openly critical of his work. Raphael was generally thought to be more agreeable and charming, traits that may have played a part in his success in acquiring significant commissions. In developing the cartoons for this series of tapestries, Raphael was very aware that they would be in close proximity to Michelangelo’s famous ceiling in the Sistine Chapel; however, the subject matter — Christ turning over the church to Peter and Paul — was different.

Like many artists, Raphael got an early start; his father was a court painter and Raphael was apprenticed at a young age to another master. After time spent elsewhere in Italy, he found his way first to Florence and eventually to Rome. His reputation firmly established, one biographer noted that Raphael had a workshop of fifty pupils and assistants, many of whom later became significant artists in their own right. This was arguably the largest workshop team under any single master painter. The workshop included masters from other parts of Italy, probably working with their own teams as sub-contractors, as well as pupils and journeymen. There is little evidence of the internal working arrangements of the workshop, but this was the artistic custom of that time. Raphael died quite young (at age 37 in 1520). He is perhaps best known for the frescoed Raphael Rooms in the Sistine Chapel. The series of 10 cartoons for tapestries representing the lives of Saint Peter and Saint Paul was commissioned by Pope Leo X in about 1516. 

“The Miraculous Draught of Fishes.” Like all the tapestries in this series, the subjects refer to Christ turning the church h over to Peter and Paul.

The Dresden tapestries are one of numerous sets woven from these cartoons after Raphael’s death. Seven of Raphael’s original 10 cartoons for the series have survived and are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The tapestries woven for the Vatican no longer hang in the Sistine Chapel but are displayed on a rotating basis in the Vatican Museum. They returned briefly to the Sistine Chapel in 2020 in honor of the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death.

This is the cartoon for the tapestry above. Note the images are reversed.

The impact of the tapestries and Raphael in the art world is evident in the second part of the exhibition, which includes drawings by Raphael that were studies for his cartoons. Numerous other works—paintings, prints, drawings, and sculpture—were created by artists influenced by Raphael’s designs. The artist’s style and in some cases entire images were lifted from the much larger tapestries to become art on their own or to be worked into other pieces. Noted renaissance and baroque masters such as Rubens and Poussin are among the artists who incorporated Raphael’s work into their own.

The Columbus exhibit is comprised of six works from the duplicates ordered by the Prince of Wales (later King Charles I) about 100 years after Raphael’s death. (Here’s where the world history kicks in.) They were produced by tapestry makers in Mortlake, England. Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony and king of Poland, brought the tapestries to Dresden, Germany in the 18th century. The tapestries were restored in the late 20th and early 21st century. The Columbus exhibition is the first time they have been displayed outside Europe. 

Two lessons in one

I think I always looked at tapestries as works of art, but certainly without appreciating the entire process. First, the artist creating the cartoon has to plan the scene, starting with a series of rough sketches that are refined into final drawings to be included in the cartoon. These are huge works with significant detail and background scenery. This is where the other artists in the master’s workshop came into their own, copying the master artist’s style and intent. This is the first art lesson. The artistry of the tapestry weavers is the second lesson. Perhaps time for more research?

I don’t know about you, but I love when a “field trip” of some sort sets me off on subsequent pursuits. I’d like to know more about the lives of Raphael and Michelangelo. Can you imagine these men elbowing their way for favor among the papal and royal interests of their day? I know Francis I lured Leonardo da Vinci to his chateau in Amboise, France, where da Vinci (and the Mona Lisa) remained until his death. What story lines would you pursue?

Thank you so much for stopping by for my impromptu art history class. See you again soon!

Guns & fireworks

This week, on our first July 4th in Ohio, I was feeling a little nostalgic. For most of our 40 years in Wheaton we celebrated the 4th at least in part with the community’s traditional, homegrown parade, which always began with a few dozen firetrucks blasting their sirens and waving to the crowds. Then came the local politicos, the high school band, the boy scouts and girl scouts. The local VFW usually showed up, as did the Shriners in their mini race cars and Uncle Sam on stilts handing out candy.

For several years, beginning when my son was a toddler and my daughter a newborn, we attended the parade with a handful of neighborhood families, always gathering on the same corner. As with all things, time marched on. The kids grew up. Some of us moved away. But these memories remain a part of the fabric of our family.

Yesterday, on our way home from our first July 4th celebration in Ohio, I heard what had happened in one of those other Illinois communities, hosting their Independence Day parade. A young gunman sat atop a downtown building and used a powerful weapon of war to shoot and kill at least six parade attendees and injure more than two dozen more.

Please re-read that last sentence. I can hardly believe it. What have we come to?

This isn’t just about Illinois or the 4th of July. In days, it seems, we have moved from Buffalo, New York, to Uvalde, Texas, to Highland Park, Illinois. How did a mass killing we once would have thought of as a frightening aberration become a weekly occurrence?

If you have followed this blog at all, you know it isn’t political (Okay, sometimes personal bias does seep in.). It’s books and cooking, decorating and some travel. But the reality is too heartbreaking to ignore. Thoughts and prayers are not enough. We must also admit that recent legislation, though well-intentioned, would not have stopped this shooter. (Another heartbreak — finally one step forward and now back again.) How does this country separate our fundamental belief in a militia from this love affair with weapons of war?

What will become of us if we don’t?

I have no answers, but I believe it’s time to put my money where my mouth is (my vote is already there) and now I’m lending my modest financial support to Everytown for Gun Safety. You might want to check them out. And thanks to Julie at Creating This
Life
for suggesting it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. And thanks for listening.

June reading: history, mystery & gossip

 Wow! How did it get to be almost-July already? For me, June begins like a sweet promise — long, sunny days strung out for months. Then that image is interrupted by the flash, sparkle, and bang of July. It’s hotter, and the beach seems like a really good idea, but if you don’t act fast August is here and summer is waning. It’s back-to-school time and hay fever. Yikes! I’m making myself older just sitting here on my laptop. 

Forget the calendar, what I really meant to report on today are some books I’ve read over the last several weeks. My reading life has finally moved on from a seemingly endless stream of Stephanie Plum mysteries. I was just digging into London: The Novel by Edward Rutherford (a slow start but it does get better) when I was side-tracked by Tina Brown’s The Palace Papers. The hoopla surrounding the Queen’s Jubilee got me started on this. (I’m a sucker for the Queen, the rest of the royals not so much.) I’ll be honest — it begins with Camilla and Diana and ends with Kate and Megan. And the Queen is always at the center because, well, she is the Queen. Charles, Andrew, William and Harry play their respective parts, because no soap opera is complete without the men.  There is definitely a soap opera quality to the book. 

Brown draws from credible sources, though she rarely ever names them relying instead on her reputation as a journalist. What did I glean from this besides a lot of juicy gossip? First, power is everything in royal circles. If you have it, you need to keep it; if you have no power, you need to find some. It’s pretty simple. Second, a lot of this power is granted to secretaries, schedulers and PR teams (and, yes, everyone has one of them too). In fact it seems the royals often communicate via secretary to secretary. And if you have ever played telephone, you know how that goes. What a complicated life!

After that read I needed a bit of a palate-cleanser, so I picked up A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham. My daughter-in-law gave me this book for Christmas, along with a membership to the Book-of-the-Month Club, but then I got so focused on moving I put it aside. It was the perfect read! The story focuses on Chloe Davis, whose father was jailed 20 years earlier for a series of murders of young, teen-age girls. Now, after two decades and just as Chloe is about to marry, two more young women die in the same way. Chloe is oddly connected to these victims and forced to revisit the earlier murders to resolve the current ones and clear her own name. Solving the crime isn’t simple, and the mystery takes a number of twists and turns. I thought the unexpected ending was a stunner — when I finally got there. If you love a good mystery, this is for you. 

Looking ahead, this is my to-be-read stack, above. I’m really looking forward to This Tender Land by William Kent Kruger. I read and loved his earlier novel, Ordinary Grace, more than a few years ago. It’s one of those books that just stays with you. Read it if you can. My daughter gave me The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd. It’s one of her recent favorites. We both loved The Invention of Wings, also by Kidd. Finally, I’m looking forward to All That She Carried by Tiya Miles, a true story of an enslaved woman in 1850’s South Carolina and the bag she prepared for her nine-year-old daughter before they were separated. The bag continued to be shared thru subsequent generations. This may not be a “summer read,” but I’m looking forward to it. 

And that’s my summer reading plan for now. How about you? Any recommendations?

I’m so glad you stopped by & wish you a star-spangled July 4th holiday. 

See you again soon. 

A day at the (art) museum

BisaDetailHi. Before I say another word, I need to apologize for my last post. “Good Stuff” probably arrived in your inbox riddled with typos and crazy mixed up type. I can’t believe this happened, but I hit publish instead of review. And out it went. I’m so embarrassed. I realized my mistake immediately, but it was too late. I did clean up the mess on my website, so if you read the post at ivyandironstone.com, you saw the corrected version. 

On with today’s post. I’m so excited to share this. 

Earlier this week I met two of my best-ever friends (the kind from the first day of high school!) downtown at Chicago’s Art Institute. Our goal was to see the Obama presidential portraits and then hopefully take in another exhibit on quilts. It turned out to be quite a day. 

The Obama portraits were more interesting in person that we expected. Like us, you have probably already seen them in the media. They are not typical presidential portraits. The artists — Kehinde Wiley for former President Barrack Obama and Amy Sherald for former First Lady Michele Obama — are the first African Americans commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to create official portraits of a president or first lady.  

Mr. Obama’s pose was familiar — seated, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, as if he’s ready to engage with the viewer. The portrait is really large, commanding even, and maybe a little imposing. I’ve been curious about the leafy background since the painting was revealed. The artist used it to work in flowers representative of places in the president’s life, including Chicago, Hawaii, and his father’s native Africa.

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Mrs. Obama’s portrait is also non-traditional. I imagine most viewers are initially struck by her gray skin, a trademark of the artist. According to the Art Institute, Sherald  does this “as a nod to these historical photographs and a reminder of the relative absence of African Americans in the history of painted portraits, but also to relieve her subjects from the internal and external limits imposed by the construct of race.” Interesting, huh? The hair, the expression, and the African-inspired fabric of her dress are all very much Michelle Obama. And purposeful. Interestingly, the background on her portrait is just blue. The blank but colorful background is another hallmark of artist Sherald.

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Chicago was just the first stop for these portraits.  They’re traveling on to the Brooklyn Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, High Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Bisa Butler’s portrait quilts

I’m not sure what we expected from this exhibit, but it wasn’t close to as extraordinary as these quilts proved to be. Artist Bisa Butler constructs her quilt portraits from bits and pieces of fabric, from the finest details of a facial expression to the puffiest sleeve on a dress. I tried to show some of the detail in the first photo, above. 

Although each work is strictly fabric, she approaches each piece as she would a painting, often working from a found photograph and selecting fabrics as an artist selects paint pigments. Butler incorporates kente cloth and wax-printed African fabrics in her quilts, using bright jewel tones rather than more traditional shades to depict skin tones. She believes this conveys the emotions of her subjects —who may be everyday people or historical figures. Look at the range of expression on the faces of the children in this quilt, Safety Patrol, which opened the exhibit (and knocked our socks off from the start.). 

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This quilt is based on an old photograph. The tulle on the hats is a three-dimensional addition. I love how naturally the women are posed.

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We were struck by the detail on the mother’s dress. Once again, the pose is so natural. Look st Dad, holding his daughter still

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I love the fabric layering and detail in each quilt and the remarkably life-like poses. (Look at the feet in each quilt!) I have always considered quilting as a precious part of our American heritage: a necessity for frugal homemakers to use what they had and an evolving craft reflecting historical moments as well as an art form. Bisa Butler’s work redefines the medium.  I’ve spent a lot of time studying these images, trying to grasp both her vision as she approaches each quilt and then the skill and artistry to select and assemble the fabrics.

That’s all I have right now. I hope you are having a good week. Thanks for stopping by and I’ll see you again soon.   

Hemingway, french toast, & garden starts 

EHemingwayHow are you & how’s your  week? It’s chilly and rainy here in Chicagoland, with the potential for snowflakesI I was working on a couple of posts, then realized I could just mash them into one. Hopefully a little something for everyone.  Here for your reading pleasure are books, looks, cooks and gardens all in one! Enjoy!

Did you watch the 3-part Hemingway series on PBS? As an English major with a concentration in 20th Century American writers, I positively devoured each episode. (Plus, it’s produced by Ken Burns. How could you go wrong?)

Hemingway is all you would expect from the Ken Burns team — a deep dive into a man both charismatic and cruel, a brilliant writer in search of “one perfect sentence.” Many of his books were deemed instant classics, others suffered withering reviews. While still in his twenties, Hemingway and his first wife became part of the romantic group of authors and artists in Gertrude Stein’s “salon.” In fact, Stein read and critiqued much of his work and F. Scott Fitzgerald introduced him to his publisher. 

What has always fascinated me about Hemingway the writer is how spare he is with words. Editing, revising, and editing more. Some of the most telling scenes of the series detailed his careful, endless editing of his own work, crossing out words, sentences, and entire paragraphs until he had the manuscript he wanted. He wrote books and short stories full of perfect sentences, but as the literary scholars and contemporary writers in the series point out, some of his writing was stunning, some just fell flat. 

Hemingway the man was complex. He married fours times, falling in love with wives number two, three and four while still married to their predecessors. He adored his three sons but later experienced angry splits with them just as he had with his own mother. He drank too much, dared too much, inserted himself into two world wars and more than one foreign civil war. He loved bullfighting, hunting big game in Africa and designed his own boat for fishing the waters off Key West and Havana. He lived a very big life that was often depicted in his novels and short stories.

For me, Hemingway is both writer and cultural character  from a significant period in American history. The series captures that history memorably. You need not be a book lover or Hemingway fan to appreciate the context.

(If you want to toast the new season with Hemingway’s famous daiquiri, you can get the recipe from David Lebovitz here, )

French toast perfection

IMG_4741For years I made the most basic pancakes and waffles — you can do just about anything with that box of mix, right? My husband, however, really likes french toast. His is pretty basic: sandwich bread dipped in beaten eggs and grilled. I just never saw (or tasted) the charm. However, our annual beach trips have always included at least one trip to a breakfast buffet I would describe as breakfast nirvana — chafing dishes of bacon, sausage, grits, potatoes, waffles, pancakes or — wait for it — french toast. This is thick, flavorful french toast, much more than eggs and bread. Earlier this spring, when my husband and I had way too much time on our hands and were hanging around the house waiting for vaccinations, we went on a quest for french toast perfection.

IMG_4707The bread is essential. We tried an unsliced white country-style loaf that we could slice thicker. It was good, but I thought the bread should contribute more flavor. Next we tried a brioche, again in a loaf we sliced. This was too soft (maybe I should have let it sit for a few more days?). It did not hold up well to eggs or grilling. Finally, I found an unsliced challah loaf. This was our favorite, although I think it should also age for a day or so. 

We also needed the right egg mixture. We took a look at some “fancier” recipes and began to tinker with each batch. We beat the eggs with cream instead of milk. (Typically the only milk in our refrigerator is skim and it just doesn’t work in recipes requiring a certain silkiness.) To boost the flavor, we added fresh orange juice, orange zest and a dash of Grand Marnier. (The additions in the restaurant recipe we used as a jumping off point.)

The first batch with the country white bread, juice, zest and Grand Marnier was a definite improvement over our old bread and eggs, but too orange-y. When we tried it with the brioche we skipped the juice and used the zest and Grand Marnier. Better flavor, messy toast. Our next effort used the challah and the improved egg mixture. This was the keeper. 

We learned a few things from our recipe testing: 

  • Using cream or cream cut with half & half gave the egg mixture a lot more body. 
  • Beat eggs until they are completely smooth (no globs of egg white). 
  • Zest is better than juice; a tablespoon of liqueur adds a subtle touch. 
  • The bread is everything. It needs to be at least a day or two old and sliced 3/4 to 1-inch thick. 
  • We dipped the bread in the egg mixture, flipping it over to make sure it was fully coated, then laid the slices in a single layer in a shallow pan. When all the slices were in the pan we poured the remaining batter over them.

IMG_4708As a cook, I enjoyed making this a few times in quick succession, tweaking the recipe until I had something I was willing to serve friends and family. But, let’s face it, this was a decadent experiment. We only added the bacon and fruit on the last try and each time we made this it was more brunch than breakfast. We used 4 eggs and 3/4 C of cream to make 6 slices, two of which we never touched. 

So, we’re ready for houseguests, brunch on the porch and maybe even Father’s Day, but it’s probably best for our waistlines and our cholesterol that we’re vaccinated, the weather has warmed considerably, and we’re tackling a long list of outdoor projects. 

Garden starts

Chicagoland gardening is slow to start compared to so many other parts of the country. But despite erratic temperatures,  Mother Nature has been busy. Daylilies, daisies, hostas and perennial geraniums are greening up the beds. I have tulips and daffodils in all stages of bloom. And this redbud is getting ready to show off. 

Although I am not at all good at starting annuals by seed, I did start one tray of marigolds and cosmos, and look! They’re coming up. The real trick, however, is making the transition from these nurturing peat pots into garden spaces. Fingers crossed! 

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I hope your garden is greening up, you’ve found something engrossing to read or watch, and — if all else fails — just make some french toast!

Thanks for stopping by. See you aqgain soon!

January landed with a thud

CherryBlossoms2I had planned to talk about the to-be-read and to-be-cooked lists I’ve been compiling for the new year, along with a few stabs I’ve made at de-cluttering and the other ways in which I was planning to entertain myself while we wait out the pandemic. (In the county were I live the Health Department describes the risk of infection as “substantial.” I don’t know what that means but it doesn’t sound good, does it? 

Then, on last Wednesday afternoon while I was on a Zoom call, my husband passed me a note that read, “The protesters have breached the capitol, and Congress is under lockdown.”

When my call was over and I joined my husband in front iof the television, we both watched, jaws dropping, at the sight of protesters over-running the Capitol Police inside that space. What a stunning violation in the seat of our democracy!

My husband and I have personal connections to the Capitol. Steve grew up in suburban Washington D.C. and spent a fair amount of time working summers on The Hill. I spent a semester off-campus in Washington, where my roommate and I had little blue passes that got us into the House and Senate visitors galleries whenever we wanted. As political junkies we spent a lot of time there. Obviously security has necessarily grown tighter since then, but Steve and I have visited with our son and daughter more than once. On our last visit, my daughter actually led the tour as a summer Senate intern.

I can’t explain the sinking, sick feeling I had when sign-carrying protesters, some of them wrapped in flags, wandered on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, sat in the Speakers’ chair, and pushed and shouted their way thru Statuary Hall. I can count a number of friends from both political parties who I’m sure had the same gut reaction. It was so out of time and place. But that was just the beginning.

Sadly, as the news continues to unfold, the dark, dangerous intent behind this protest becomes darker and clearer. And that raises even more questions. It’s heartbreaking, infuriating, ugly and frightening.

This blog is intended to weigh in on life’s lighter side — on looks, cooks, books, and occasional travels — and I’ll certainly get back to that soon.  But January 6, 2021,  is a seminal moment in American history, as stunning as 9/11. This time the enemy came from within. That it was endorsed by a sitting president makes it unspeakable.

I realize we all have a lot to unpack and sort out here. I just had to pause.

27 Books…and counting!

 

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Except for the Marie Benedict book on top, the rest of this stack is “to be read.”

The reading app that I use on my iPad gave me a remarkable report the other day: I’ve read 27 books on my electronic sidekick this year! Trust me; I’m not a numbers person. (I can’t even tell you what a loaf of bread or gallon of milk costs!)  I don’t think I’ve ever tallied my reading before. This number just popped up, so I went thru the list. Yep, it’s right.

Most of this has been what I would call my “pandemic reading,” more than a dozen Louise Penny mysteries and, when I ran out of Louise Penny, I went thru the Sue Grafton alphabet mysteries that I had missed along the way. No surprise this worked for me. There are some similarities: both series feature likable detectives and charming casts of returning characters. I find them remarkably easy to slide into and escape current events.

But there’s more: I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I usually downloaded these books late at night when I really needed new reading material and found the $6.99 to $8.99 price tag a bargain versus looking for a sleeping pill. (Have you suffered from insomnia the past year?) Of course, there is the chance I got so engrossed in the books, that I read longer than I should have. But that’s another post. 

No apologies

These were the books I read when I couldn’t concentrate on anything tougher, and I make no apologies. Like so many others, I found that the pandemic, civil unrest and the charged political atmosphere made for some very unsettling times. I have often thought of reading as an escape or the roadmap to information and answers. My iPad reading list reveals just how much I needed to escape! 

On the other hand, as you may recall from other posts, I did truly enjoy some meatier reads in 2020. The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir by Ruth Wariner is one of those books that has stayed with me. I wrote about it here    One of my favorites was The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson. This book was based on real events and had an especially meaningful message about about racism and bigotry. I wrote about it here  I wrote about three more great reading choices here,  Check them out. 

I think, however, my favorite was Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile recounting Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister. Larson’s writing seamlessly marries the details of aircraft, strategic planning and internstional diplomacy with lively details of everyday life drawn from his impeccable sources. Churchill surrounded himself with a colorful cast of characters, and his family was equally entertaining and plays a significant role in the book. For history nerds like me, it was totally engrossing. (A member of my book group confided that she was only permitting herself to read a limited number of pages per day, to make the book last longer!)

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My book group is discussing this next week. I can’t wait to hear what everyone else thinks. 

I just finished The Only Woman in the Room by  Marie Benedict. Like The Sound of Gravel and The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, this story of Hedy Lamarr’s (Yes! That Hedy Lamarr!!)  role as a scientific inventor (with composer George Antheil) of a “frequency-hopping” radio communication technology that eventually was linked to the development of our wifi is a well-layered tale. Before she was Hedy Lamarr actress, she was Hedy Kiesler, young  Austrian actress and then Hedy Mandl, married to Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy, pro-fascist  Austrian arms dealer and munitions manufacturer.

Lamarr’s escape from Nazi Austria to Hollywood stardom is more than enough to make for a good read, but her struggle to be accepted for more than her beauty and glamour makes it a contemporary tale as well. Author Benedict has a talent for telling the story of women who broke the rules of convention by moving well-beyond their expected roles. The Other Einstein recalls the life of Mileva Maric,  a brilliant physicist who just happened to be the first wife of Albert Einstein, and Lady Clememtine, wife of Winston Churchill, both of them also often “the only woman in the room.” (These last two are also both good reads.)

Looking back at the year in books, instead of what I missed because of the pandemic, I realize I am genuinely lucky to enjoy the riches I’ve found in reading.  Hopefully you can look back with a similarly thankful heart. Looking ahead, I sincerely wish you a healty and happy new year. And plenty of good reading material!

Thanks for stopping by!

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Looks, books and cooks from a pandemic, part 1

How are you doing?  Isolation is hard, but I honestly can’t complain. We’re healthy and so is our family. Right now, that’s everything.

I am  struck by the challenge of balancing the practical (stay in, stay safe) and the emotional (stay sane, keep busy) in every day living. Life right now, I think, is made up of small victories.  Here are some of the things saving me these days.

Conversation

Obvious, right?  But maybe we’ve been relying too much on texts and emails. I have long suspected that personal conversation is so much richer, and the pandemic has proven me right.  Phone calls from old friends and family members are golden, the highlights of the day. Those other voices really are reassuring. And then there’s FaceTime, Zoom and all the other platforms that allow us to meet face-to-face. In addition to our usual FaceTime adventures with the grandkids, we have been enjoying grown-up, cocktail FaceTime with friends.

On Friday my book group met via Zoom to discuss The Lake is on Fire by Rosellen Brown. Fifteen of us logged on to talk, check in with each other, share a few war stories about life in a time of social distancing, and then realized we really could not talk all at once. (This happens even when we meet in person!)

These women are challenging readers (as well as some of my oldest friends) and we did dive into the book. We got side-tracked by the history of Jews being re-settled on midwestern farms. And then there was the matter of Chicago’s colorful history on the near South and West sides. This was a challenging read, and it shared a wonderful slice of Chicago history.

Many of us thought it well worth reading. We agreed we’ll do this this next month when we read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, and perhaps even in June when we meet to determine our reading list for next year. Thank goodness for books, and my never-ending list of what I want to read next and then after that.

Keeping busy

I learned long ago that tackling a new recipe in the kitchen is — for me —  a great stress-reliever. When I’m concentrating on measuring ingredients and following directions, I am able to put other cares in a better perspective. Like so many of you, I am cooking a lot. Our dinner repertoire now includes Frying Pan Spaghetti, my name for our version of a New York Times recipe that combines dry spaghetti, halved cherry tomatoes, a generous pour of olive oil and a quart of boiling water in a large, shallow pan for a five-minute simmer. Add a little green with a handful or two of fresh spinach or kale, short pieces of asparagus or green beans or even peas. Spice it up with fresh parmesan, parsley, and/or basil. It’s  a great “hip pocket recipe,” one that adapts to what’s in your pantry and fridge.

And speaking of your pantry and fridge, how are you keeping them stocked? My husband and I are learning the ropes of “click list shopping” online and then picking up our order in the parking lot. It is easy and feels much safer than braving the store, but it definitely requires much more organized list-making than Steve and I are used to doing. We’re making it work, but between our accidental omissions from the list and the grocer’s need to sometimes substitute, we’ve come to realize flexibility is key.

I’m embarrassed to say, this is my very messy cabinet of sewing curiosities.

Long before I fell in love with cooking, I found sewing and other needlework to be equally engaging. When I started shopping vintage and antique markets, I was quickly drawn to the vintage tablecloths and fabrics available. (And by this I mean I seem to have an inner sensor that detects barkcloth draperies, 40’s tablecloths, antique French grainsacks and linen towels before I even see them!) This explains the bundles of vintage and new fabrics I have stuffed in a cabinet downstairs. So, I opened the cabinet doors where I keep this stash, and I’ve been measuring, cutting, sewing and letting the creative juices flow. I have no finished projects (except for a few homemade face masks), but I’m having a terrific time. And I will share what I  eventually have to show for this effort!

Like so many of our friends, my husband and I try to get in a walk outside most days. And as the weather has improved here we have found ways to putter in the yard and garage, cleaning up the inevitable “winter residue” and settling on some space for vegetables in our yard since we aren’t sure when or if Steve’s garden plot at the park district will be available. This life is full of unknowns, isn’t it?

Too much news is just too much

I can be a real news junky, but I have sworn off much of what I used to watch. I still flip on the Today show first thing in the morning. It’s my check in with the world, to make sure we’re all still here. And I  try to catch local news to get what’s happening in Chicago. But I don’t let it run on all day.

I have mixed feelings many of these days. I miss simple pleasures like coffee with a friend or guests for dinner. I miss my adult children, self-isolating in their own homes. Although I’m keeping busy, like everyone else I also wonder:  How long will our isolation last? When will we be able to have friends over for Sunday night supper or take a trip? And then there are the big questions. Will we all stay safe and healthy? How different will life be in the post-pandemic?

As so many if us have said lately, “This too shall pass.” And, I would like to add, “We live in interesting times.” What about you? How are you spending your days in these social-distancing times? I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time?

 

Binge-ing on culture

Lately I have found myself on a bit of a culture course. And while I’m certainly not complaining, I am amused at how things sometimes come together. The last few weeks are a good example.

One of the advantages of living in a big city is the access to cultural and entertainment venues. And while that is certainly true, it’s also true that making the time, getting the tickets, and all the other requisite details often get in the way of what the city has to offer. Our suburb is twenty miles west of downtown Chicago, and while we have easy access to the city by car or commuter train, it’s more than a run to the grocery for milk.

My binge started with tickets to see The King’s Speech at Chicago Shakespeare. Perhaps you have seen the movie about Prince Albert, the Duke of York and his struggle overcoming a crippling stutter at the same time his brother, the Prince of Wales, was about to abdicate the throne, making Albert the king as Europe was going to war with Hitler. (Talk about pressure!) The play was enjoying critical acclaim at Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater. Everything I have seen there has been first-rate and this production did not disappoint, including the appearance of Harry Hadden-Paton, of The Crown and Downton Abbey, as Albert. My husband and I totally enjoyed the evening.

But then, less than a week later, I found myself at Symphony Hall. I am joining a girlfriend this season in a series of five concerts. She has been a subscriber for years, but her partner in this venture decided not to participate this season. The seats are good, and the cost when you subscribe ahead of time is do-able, so of course I said yes. Well, these seats are more than good; they’re in the fourth row. I can watch the violinists finger their instruments. We park in the garage across the street, grab a bite to eat and sit back and enjoy. I may be hooked!

But, wait, there’s more!

My usual cultural destination in the city has always been the Art Institute. (I’ve written about various visits here, including the Thorne Miniature rooms, John Singer Sargent and Gauguin in my Miscellaneous File. ) A year or so ago friends introduced us to a monthly lecture/discussion series at the AI. We are all retired, so when schedules allow we meet there to attend the series and enjoy lunch after. Last Friday was especially appealing, because a new Andy Warhol exhibit has just opened. We met early to see as much of Andy Warhol-From A to B and Back Again as possible before the regular lecture. But we may need to go back, because this is an extensive exhibit that takes the visitor well beyond Warhol’s prints of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy.

And early pen and ink self-portrait of Warhol.

I wish I had done a little AW research before we went (Note to self: next time do a little homework.) Warhol’s much more than just a pop icon of the sixties, although that certainly describes much of his work. Unlike other artists, Warhol began his career doing commercial art. His first commission was drawing shoes for Glamour magazine in the 1950s, followed by work as a shoe designer for manufacturer Israel Miller.

Much of Warhol’s later work continued to be based on commercial art, like the Campbell’s soup cans and the Brillo boxes. He was well known for his silk screen process. Many of those pieces, including the famous and familiar Marilyn Monroe image, were based on commercial photos that he copied and successfully turned into iconic images using a silk screen process. (The Marilyn Monroe image was originally a studio publicity shot for her last movie.) The silk-screened portraits, in fact, became so popular that movie stars, public and private figures came to Warhol for what he referred to as “commercial business.”

In addition to the individual portraits, Warhol often produced multiple versions in one work, sometimes with slight variation in color and/or shading.

This oversized portrait of Mao Zedong (it’s about 125-feet tall) is part of The Art Institute’s permanent collection. The Institute’s archive notes that Warhol’s portrait displays some irreverence towards the image that was widely displayed in China: “Flamboyant brushstrokes compete with the photographic image, forming color splashes on Mao’s clothing. Red rouge and blue eye shadow resemble graffiti.” Some art historians view Warhol’s treatment here as commentary on similarities between Communist propaganda to capitalist advertising media.

Like so many artists, Warhol’s artistic muse went well beyond the canvas. He spent most of his later years exploring videos and movies. Warhol died at only 58, so it’s interesting to speculate on where his art would have taken him. Like many gallery-goers, I’m more drawn to Renoir and Monet than Warhol. But there is no denying the impact Warhol has had on the art world. He used techniques like silk screen and video and blurred the lines between commercial art and fine art. And that alone is saying a lot.

What about you? What kind of art are you most drawn to?

So much for my culture binge. It’s time to take a deep dive into holiday prep, a.k.a. oven cleaning. Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon?

Re-writing history

It’s hard to believe that a landowner/businessman would design and oversee the construction of this mansion based on pattern books, but John Drayton did exactly that.

This year as we were planning a beach trip to South Carolina, I also wanted to re-visit Drayton Hall Plantation. Although we had visited years ago, before social media and blogging, I have been following them on Instagram for some time. And in my mind, the folks behind Drayton Hall have been doing a fabulous job of teaching history.

Briefly, Drayton Hall is an 18th-century plantation on the Ashley River about 15 miles from Charleston, and its history and architecture are notable. Historically, Drayton Hall is the only plantation to survive the Revolutionary and Civil Wars intact. Additionally, it is a remarkable example of Palladian Architecture in the United States, built by John Drayton Sr. and designed without the benefit of professional architects. Instead, like many other other wealthy and well-educated planters of his time, Drayton relied on British “pattern books” that detailed classical architecture.

The first time I visited Drayton Hall I was sorely disappointed. As someone who loves historic homes and had visited the likes of Mount Vernon and Williamsburg more than once, I loved seeing these buildings restored and renovated as necessary and filled with the appropriate furnishings. In fact, for me that was a big part of their allure.

This reflects how the building was found when it was acquired from the Drayton family, on the 1970’s. The workmanship on the paneling and molding is remarkable.

Not so at Drayton Hall.

Drayton Hall is a preservation, not a restoration. So, it’s empty. What you see are the architectural details of a building that was inhabited by Draytons from the 1740’s until it was turned over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the 1970’s. It has never had electricity or indoor plumbing. The preservation philosophy at Drayton Hall was to stabilize the house and maintain it as it was when acquired from the family. This was radical at the time, but it has resulted in considerable technical and scientific research into the original building and the people who lived there. And the lessons learned  have given me a whole new appreciation for the role of historic preservation.

For example, historians originally believed construction was begun on Drayton Hall in 1738 after John Drayton Sr. acquired the property. However In 2014, scholars examined the wood cores of the attic timbers and determined that they were cut from trees felled in the winter of 1747–48. Because the attic would have been framed well before the remainder of the house, scholars now believe Drayton Hall was not occupied by the family until the early 1750s. This is just one example of the kinds of data the building continues to reveal.

Expanding on plantation history

Today the plantation includes an Interpretive Center and Museum. The Interpretive 
Center traces the history of the property, the Drayton’s, and South Carolina. This history includes that of the enslaved people who built the house, planted the crops, tended the fields and served the family, all of which made plantation life possible. This reality is nothing like Gone With the Wind.

Drayton Hall is constructed from bricks made on-site. Often enslaved children worked on brick-making. Look closely at the red brick on the right in the third row. A child’s handprint is visible.

One of the things Drayton Hall has done very well is to reveal more about the enslaved people who lived there. Plantations like Drayton Hall and its counterparts throughout the South would not have been possible without the labor provided by the enslaved community. It’s important we understand the economic impact of slavery on the South, the North and even Europe.

During our visit we attended a presentation, Port to Plantation: Slavery and the Making of the Early Lowcountry Economy. The presentation takes visitors back 400 years to the beginning of the Triangular Trade Route (from Europe to West Africa, to the Americas, and back to Europe), paying special attention to the middle passage which carried slaves from West Africa to the Americas. Slaves were traded in South America, the Caribbean and North America, but their role in the American South is now under increasing scrutiny thanks to additional historic research like that at Drayton Hall.

Portugal, Great Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands all participated in the slave trade, sending ships to West Africa, where they loaded slaves for the Americas, then after selling the slaves, reloaded their ships with valuable cotton and rice to return to Europe. The passage itself was gruesome, with hundreds of Africans packed onto ships. Many did not survive the journey, and those who did were often crudely “warehoused” at their destination until they regained their strength for the auction block. This was, after all, business, and the factors or agents responsible for the slave sales depended on top-dollar transactions,

Drayton Hall is not alone in re-thinking how it presents slavery. The McLeod Plantation on nearby James Island, and the Aiken-Rhett House and Nathaniel Russell House, both overseen by the Charleston Historic Foundation in Charleston have also re-cast and expanded their interpretation of slavery. They have traded the term “slaves” for “enslaved people” to more clearly recognize them as people rather than property. To read more about this, including the controversy it has generated, see the recent feature in the Post & Courier by Robert Behre.

Not everyone is a fan of this revised history. Guides at these and other sites report visitors who complain that this history is “depressing” at the least. Some are more outspoken than others. (A sign of these outspoken times, perhaps?) But as hard as some of this is to see or hear or read (I find myself speechless over the child’s handprint in the brick), I think we are very fortunate to continue to learn more about this chapter in our history. This historic site visit pushed me to consider how little I know and how much more there is to learn.

It’s also a reminder that one of life’s great gifts is the opportunity to re-think, re-write, re-imagine, and grow. What if we gave similar license to other life experiences?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!