28 April 2012

Recess & relief

Moving furniture must be my favorite hobby. (It runs in the family.) I am always looking for ways to improve our daily lives through the design of our space, and find that the placement of our furniture tends to influence how we spend our time. I am also a firm believer in that principle of feng shui that suggests moving twenty-seven items in order to bring new energy to a spaceand what more satisfying way to do this than by rearranging the furniture? (It's not unusual for friends to check to see what's changed since their last visit.) I'm amazed at how many configurations have been possible after living in the same seventy-square-meter apartment (roughly seven hundred and fifty square feet) for the past seven years...

A few weeks ago I cleared a lot of things out of the studio and came up with what seemed like an ideal new solution. Everything was nicely ordered, using the axis of the window as a reference point, with space flowing around each major piece of furniture. But for some reason I found myself mostly working at my smaller desk (an antique drop-leaf table), while stacks of papers and things piled up on the larger studio table, rendering it essentially unusable.

I knew that something needed to change, and fortunately it wasn't long before yet another plan emerged. My primary consideration is always to take advantage of the windows and the path of the sunto allow daytime activities to be as close to the source of natural light as possible (which is not easy, considering that each room only has a single window). With the new layout, both tables are near to the studio window and the armchair is positioned to catch the late afternoon sun. The window is still fully accessible, which is important because I love to watch the goings-on in the street & the slice of piazza that's visible from the apartment.

Just as I'd hoped, as soon as I reorganized the studio, new energy started flowing into my creative work again. One of the many things I have been experimenting with this week is embossing. I have always loved the effectthose lovely shadows that allude, ever so gently, to the shape of something.

At first I wasn't quite sure how to go about it, but the inspiration I needed eventually came from artist Fiona Dempster's blog. As I mentioned recently, I'm enjoying the exposure to other artists that has come from participating in various creative projects this year; they are a generous lot, sharing their ideas, input, experiments and techniques. Fiona has done some beautiful work with embossing (with the great tip of recycling plastic milk containers into templates).

For my first attempts at embossing, I chose to focus on some of my favorite piazzas. (I am always contemplating new ways to interpret Florence's urban planits beautiful geometry is endlessly fascinating.) Using the original drawings for the piazza maps that I created for The Piazzas of Florence, I printed scans of these on to sturdy museum board. The photo below shows the results of the next stepcutting out the city blocks—which then reveals the defining outlines of the streets and piazzas.

When I get lost in the rhythm of a laborious and precise cutting project like this, I am often transported back to the second year of my Architecture degree. After the first year's design studio, where we were gently introduced to the program on the nest-like top floor among the tree tops, as second-year students we were relegated to the 'Annex'. In this former war-time mess hall, a long room divided by eye-level partitions designating the various studio classes, we learned to make modelsand messesand to put up with each others' music, snoring and phone calls (made from the single telephone that hung from a slender wooden column). This is where a girl name Leila sliced off the tip of her finger with a misguided X-Acto knife (luckily the doctor was able to reattach it); I still think of her every time I pick up my X-Acto knife. It is also where the number of our graduating class began to dwindle. Those who survived the intense foray into model-making, the frequently tear-inducing crits and the all-nighters were allowed to return to Marvin Hall, the impressive stone structure that housed the School of Architecture...where we went on to experience more of the same!

(Yes, intensive, repetitious activities do allow one's mind to wander...)

But back to the twenty-first century... I experimented with several different kinds of paper for the embossing, and found that my old favorite, a creamy heavyweight Rives, works wonderfully. It's 100% cotton, with a nice 'tooth', and very malleable. I am able to ease it along the edges that delineate the city blocks/streets with my fingers, and then use a bone folder/other tools to make the lines crisp. While a proper press would be useful for such work, I find that I really enjoy using my hands for this process.

The photo below shows my first attempts on leftover strips of the Rives: the top left 'map' is Piazza Santa Maria Novella, at the lower left is Piazza della Repubblica, and the one on the right is Piazza della Signoria. It's only possible to incorporate one of the lovely natural deckles into each one due to their small size (about four-by-four inches), but I may hand-deckle the edges of the maps if I can salvage pieces large enough to permit this. Unfortunately, little of my stash of Rives remains, and I have not been able to find it locally. Ultimately I hope to have enough to do a limited edition of the twelve piazzas that I featured in The Piazzas of Florence.

I don't know yet how the end 'product' will turn out, in terms of mounting, borders, contrasting elements, additions like words, etc., but I expect at some point, in one form or another, the maps will be available in the PaperSynthesis shop. (Ideas?)

Incidentally, only after titling this Arzigogolare entry with a reference to the embossing process did I notice the recess/relief of the waffles that I had for breakfast (shown in the top photo). Funny how these little parallels can creep into your day... 'Recess & relief' also sounds like something we might need to indulge in every once in a while.

* * *

In these last days of April, the scent of spring is permeating Florence. Literally. As I was checking the stars late last night, the most delightful fragrance wafted through the windows. Even though there is not a patch of dirt in sight, from somewhere in the cool night rose the scent of the earth awakeninga mingling of soil and sun, water and lifebringing with it the definitive message that spring has taken root. A subtle, but unmistakable, shift. And then today, listening to the sounds of the morning, it seems as though, overnight, a new fleet of insects was born. Their bzzz-ing joins the footsteps and voices of early tourists, the hum of the street cleaning machine, the talkative birds and the chorus of church bells. Che bello...

* * *

{PaperSynthesis update}

Currently, copies of The Piazzas of Florence ship from the US (and shipping is free within
the US), but there will be a few changes to shipping policies for this item in the next few weeks.

The book will be available to ship during the following periods:
from now through Tuesday 8 May 2012
between Friday 1 June and Friday 8 June 2012

From mid-June 2012 until the end of September 2012, 
The Piazzas of Florence will be shipping from Italy instead of the
US. This means the shipping cost will decrease within Italy & Europe, but
increase to other countries (including the US). Also, please note that
a very limited number of copies will be available during this period.

Further details can be found in the PaperSynthesis shop.

20 April 2012

Darjeeling & Hydrangeas

After a mostly sunny & blue-skied winter, our deliciously warm March almost fooled me into doing the cambio di stagione (the packing away of last season's clothing and linens and bringing out the new). But then along came April, and I remembered why I normally wait until early June to put away my winter coat (no joke)...the arrival of those April showers that are supposed to bring May flowers tends to elicit a fresh chill that can settle into the Arno valley for another month or two. Still, with this year's early burst of spring, we are already seeing swathes of wildflowers blooming everywhere: gorgeous!

You certainly don't need a rainy day to make a pot of tea...it's an afternoon ritual I like to observe in all seasons & weather (there's something delightful about those curls of steam rising from a cup of tea)...but tea-time seems especially necessary when low, dim skies blur the distinction between day and night.

Following a little excursion to the other side of the river last week, I arrived home with a couple of things to infuse tea-time with some new sparklea tea cup and a box of Afternoon Darjeelingas well as my annual blue hydrangea purchase. Inspired by the similar blues of the tea box and the hydrangea, and the pretty new cup, I decided to document the components that made up my tea-time ritual that afternoon.

I am more likely to bring out my camera if the sun is outit's the contrast between light & shadow that generally inspires my photos. But, with only a few 30-second bursts of sunshine that day (and knowing there was another week's-worth of rain in the forecast), I compensated for the lack of pure sunshine by shooting some of the photos controluce (against the light). Using large blank canvases also helped to reflect a bit more brightness onto the tea-time subjects.

Below are some notes, ramblings & links relating to the images (going left to right & top to bottom):
  1. Taylor's of Harrogate loose leaf teas brew up very nicely...and I love the packaging. Their Afternoon Darjeeling, 'the champagne of teas', comes in a box the color of the blue hydrangea petals (which this year is actually a mix of purple & blue). {Click here to visit the Taylor's of Harrogate website; if you're ever in Harrogate, a visit to their tea room is a lovely treat.}
  2. In The Piazzas of Florence I mentioned the importance of a choosing the right cup based on what you're drinking from it. I don't mind a rustic handmade cup for coffee, but I prefer a more delicate one for tea. My few china tea cups have all broken, so I decided to bring home one by Bitossi, to see if I like the shape. (I do.) I have slowly been collecting Bitossi pieces over the last few years, and now have some wide shallow bowls for pasta, risotto, etc., a 'breakfast cup' (for milky morning coffee), and several shapely, handleless cup-bowls with tremendous versatility (great for mise en place, single servings, sauces, etc.; one is shown holding strawberries in this past Arzigogolare entry). I have been surprised at my inclination toward plain white crockery, with such simple linesvery unlike the colorful/hand-painted/textured pieces I've been drawn to in the pastbut I love how beautifully these pieces set off everything they hold. {Click here to visit the Bitossi website, where you will find a range of items for the table, home & garden.}
  3. A wire basket holds my stash of Mère Poulard cookies. I adore caramel with a touch of salt and was thrilled to come across these at one of the local grocery stores. They are sublimehints of caramel are flecked through a delicate cookie stamped with the silhouette of Mont Saint Michel, where the legendary Annette 'Mère' Poulard and her husband opened their inn in 1888. {On the subject of caramel, making your own sauce is very simple. I use this recipe from the Simply Recipes blog, sometimes adding a grinding of pink sea salt.}
  4. My mother found this sweet silver tea strainer for me on a trip to London, and it rests perfectly in a miniature ramekin between uses.
  5. The little dish with the Mère Poulard cookies is actually a ceramic Japanese garlic/ginger 'grater', also a gift from my mother.
  6. The Japanese cast iron tea pot has been with me for well over a decade (I like that it doesn't chip/crackor break!), and came from a favorite tea shop in Pasadena, California.
  7. The lacquered Japanese tea caddy is also from the tea shop in Pasadena. My improvised sugar bowl consists of a Chinese tea tin 'lid' on a small glazed bowl, with a miniature silver ladle.
  8. A close-up of the hydrangea petals. The little bush hasn't made it to the kitchen sill, where it usually belongs, just yet...I'm enjoying having it in the studio for now. {To read a past Arzigogolare entry about my annual blue hydrangea purchase, please click here.}
  9. I always like a little something fresh in my tea, and find that a sliver of orange gives a bit of zing while also imparting a touch of sweetness that makes sugar unnecessary. (I do like a few granules in Darjeeling thoughor in the absence of a slice of citrus or an herb sprig of some kind.) The small gold-rimmed china bowl is part of the china set that I inherited from my Great-Grandmother, and seems to have countless uses.

I have always appreciated the little dishes, bowls and other items used in the preparation of food-related rituals (and likewise, in the studio, for 'arty' activities—there seem to be many parallels between the kitchen & studio, and the work that takes place in each). But lately I have been paying extra attention to such things as I lay the foundation for a new project. 'Mise en place', a concept that finds its roots in the kitchen, and essentially entails the art of putting everything 'in place' before beginning to cook, is the title I have chosen as the starting point for an edition of artist's books created for BookArtObject. I am really enjoying the process of exploring the possibilities, and will share more on this project soon...

06 April 2012

A time for letters

I love how the passing of the months and seasons is marked, among other signs, by what shows up in the bakeries: panetone is offered at Christmastime; during Carnevale there are baskets of cenci, and for Easter the sugarcoated colomba. My all-time favorite bakery treat appears in August: fig walnut tart, which is baked in long rectangular trays. Currently it is Lent—time for quaresimali.

We always look forward to these crispy, lightly chocolatey cookies that mimic the letters of the alphabet. (The bag I bought this year contained a rather reduced set of letters, which constrained me to the odd selection of words in the image below.) While quaresimali were traditionally the only sweet allowed during Lent, and are somewhat austere as far as sweets go, they are nonetheless very tasty. {Click here to read more about quaresimali in a past entry introducing an artist's book structured around the alphabet.}

On the subject of letters, in January I signed up for a project called A Letter a Week (ALaW). Fiona Dempster, an Australian artist, initiated this creative challenge in 2010, and the group has grown to include an international mix of members. I have enjoyed 
not only watching each artist's alphabet unfold over the past few months but also learning more about their work. Many have chosen some form of paper as their principal media, but many alphabets are made of or incorporate fabric, beads, wood, and metal, and the artists have tried out a number of unusual approaches and techniques. I am very drawn to Fiona's work—her concepts are simple in the purest sense of the word, with an execution that is both incredibly tactile and rich with meaning. {Click here to visit her website. Her blog, Paper Ponderings, can be accessed from my "Inspiring places to visit" side bar.}

On the drawing board: preparing to glue the shapes to the base sheet.

I like how this challenge offers a bit of structure while still allowing plenty of flexibility. The choice of media is made by the artist, as is the final presentation format, as long as each letter is interpreted within a 7-cm square. The other constraint is that one of the alphabets must somehow relate to a predetermined theme: "Going dotty—polka dots and pixels."

Ideally, artists are supposed to create one letter each week, but since I only learned about this project in the New Year, I spent  the first few weeks considering various ideas, visiting the site to see how other alphabets were taking shape, and perusing the pieces created in past years. The letters must come together in a final form for a possible group exhibition, so it was important to me to identify what this might be before jumping in. My first tangible efforts appear in this entry on the ALaW site, where I noted my difficulty in sifting through the possibilities and choosing a direction.

For the next few weeks, I experimented with flowing cursive-style letters that were linked to one another, but after my daughter and I watched the documentary Helvetica, I decided to base the letters for my first alphabet on Helvetica. The clean lines of this spare, rather ubiquitous, font are not at all what I had envisioned using, but I found a new appreciation for it after watching the film. From the beginning, I was attracted to the idea of depicting only a portion of each letter. It was interesting to see how little of a letter was necessary to ensure that it was identifiable—what made it a C instead of a D, for example. I chose a font size of 450, which is large enough that the letters remain somewhat abstract but still provides a large enough glimpse to distinguish each—though perhaps with a bit more thought than might normally be required to read individual letters.

The large, single-sheet format is also a change from my original plan to put the letters in book form, but I wanted to be able to see the relationship between all of the shapes simultaneously. Scoring the lines with a bone folder, I created a grid of forty-nine 7-cm squares, allowing some breathing space for the letter shapes.

The two-color scheme also deviates from my initial infatuation with the dozens of colors of Canson Mi-Teintes papers (shown in the first entry for ALaW). I ended up choosing two that I had been wanting to pair together for some time: tomato red played against a purpley-brown background (which unfortunately shows up a bit differently, depending on the light present, each time I photographed my progress).

As always, I'm intrigued by the process as a project develops. In this case, the interpretation become simpler and more streamlined as I worked through it. My "dotty" alphabet will likely be the complete opposite—layered, multimedia, more colorful. Though I suppose only time will tell . . .

{Below are a few details of the letter shapes, followed by a view of the first three months-worth of letters.
My favorites so far are G, K, and M.}


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