31 March 2013

Like the lines of a poem

After writing about patterns relevant to the wintery months of the year, when we in the northern hemisphere tend to be more focused on cozy thoughts of home, March's pattern finally brings us outdoors. (I suspect it may be equally appealing to those of you beginning to feel the nip of autumn too.) If you missed the introduction to this monthly series of posts inspired by Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language, you can read about the previous patterns by clicking on 'patterns' in the listing of 'Things I like to write about' in the sidebar.

This month I've chosen pattern 125: STAIR SEATS. There's nothing like sitting on the steps at the edge of a piazza in the spring, welcoming back the sun again. As Alexander explains, stair seats afford that perfect balance between being able to both observe and participate in the action of a space. He says, "When there are areas in public places which are both slightly raised and very accessible, people naturally gravitate toward them. Stepped cafe terraces, steps surrounding public plazas, stepped porches, stepped statues and seats, are all examples."

As focal points of each neighborhood, a fair number of Florence's churches have piazzas in front of them, and since they tend to be raised above the main grade there are nearly always at least a few steps in front of (or even wrapping partway around) them. The same is true of major public buildings; in other words, there are steps at nearly every turn. And of course when people use them it creates an element of interaction in the piazza or street, which in turn adds an extra dimension of energy & life. Below are a few examples from around Florence (and one in Venice).

Stone benches surround many of Florence's grand palazzi, and are used much in the same way as the church steps.
Steps in front of the church of Santo Spirito
Steps in front of the church of San Lorenzo

Steps leading up to the church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice, which has a lovely position at the lagoon's edge.



While these steps are considerably off the beaten path (near Ponte San Niccolò), and not as popular nor well-used as those in front of Florence's churches & public buildings, they are the ones that inspired me to choose this pattern. Each patinaed, overgrown step is like the line of a poem. I love how alive they areas if they are 'growing' right along with everything else on the hillside.




Lying at the edge of Piazzale Michelangelo, these generous—and numerous—steps (shown above & below) accommodate a lot of people, and offer a wonderful place to pause while enjoying a sweeping view of Florence. It's not unusual to see brides traipsing up the stairs, trains and all, hand-in-hand with their grooms as they pose for what must be some pretty amazing photos.

These 'stairs with a view' make me think of pattern 133: STAIRCASE AS A STAGE, which encourages us to think of a staircase as a space/'room' in its own right. In fact, the pattern is interpreted mainly for internal staircases, but I think it also alludes to the role played by outdoor steps in certain cases. Another such example that comes to mind is the set of two dozen or so steps leading up to Cortona's City Hall. This staircase affords a wonderful view of the town's main square and, as a result, also 'holds' much of the piazza's life at any given time.


30 March 2013

Nests & eggs

To celebrate the birds who've begun filling the city with their chatter & singing again, I thought I'd share a little copper wire nest I made. I began with a loose spiral and then started weaving/winding/twirling shorter pieces through. At first I planned to leave the ends loose—sticking out in the way that twigs often do in a bird's nest—but instead ended up 'curling' the ends a bit, which seemed to suit this looser interpretation.



I considered featuring quail eggs in this month's recipe, but never did quite manage to develop the ideas I had in mind. Inspired by the spring theme of nests, I wondered about making mini tarts, just big enough for one barely cooked quail egg + a sprinkle of chopped green onion & aged Pecorino. We've also been eating sweet potatoes quite often lately (oven roasted with herbs or in pancake form), which led to visions of a dish composed of a bed of bitter greens, crispy 'shoestring' sweet potatoes & poached quail eggs. Eventually, the pretty little speckled eggs will need to be used up, so there will definitely be some experimenting to come...

That leaves me with offering the recipe for our 'Easter Egg Salad Sandwiches' which, as I noted in this past entry, are distinguished from regular egg salad sandwiches by timing only. I've updated the recipe slightly (below). Incidentally, the background is one side of the copper pencil holder shown in the 'still life' in my last postI was finally able to photograph the copper items during a recent burst of sun.





After their traditional silence since Good Friday, the church bells from all over the city are beginning to ring again—Happy Easter!

23 March 2013

Little orange houses (+ other orange things)

I've been having some fun with this month's color for the ROY G BIV photo challenge*: orange. It's hard for me to name a favorite colorI like specific shades of red, orange, yellow, green, blue & purplebut orange is probably the one that makes me happiest. Again, it's certain kinds of orange—mainly natural, earthy shades, like terracotta, rust & copper...but just the right intense, bright orange also has the power to absolutely make me swoon.

The image at the top of this post shows a few of the little houses I started working on just last night (only the one at the front has been glued together); they are modest structures of just 4x4x5.5 centimeters each. These first ones all fall within the 'orange' family; one is a bright 'color wheel' orange, another terracotta, and a third iridescent copper. I hope to keep going (though I'm not really sure where I am going), and create one of these in each of my favorite colors of Canson Mi-Teintes. I tend to spend so much studio time planning/experimenting/pondering that it was nice to just run with an idea without over-thinking it. After all of my work with cubes in the last several months, creating a 'net' for a cube-based house was fairly easy, and there's something satisfying about seeing all of those squares & triangles piling up on the paper while preparing it to score/trim. In fact, I almost got distracted by the geometry of the drawing, and seeing where that might lead...


This month's challenge also inspired a still life of sorts, composed of some items made of copper & terracotta. They are not very representative of the color orange, especially in their patinaed state, but rather of these materials that are closer to orange than any other color found on the color wheel. Equally fascinating were the undersides of the copper itemsthe tray with the fabulous circular verdigris pattern, the round plant dish, and the 'pencil holder' (which I see now is barely recognizable as being made of copper)but the short bursts of sunshine we had today made even this one shot below nearly impossible...something to try the next time we have a proper sunny day.


And next are my usual quartets of images grouped together—a little of this & a little of that, with quite a bit of terracotta & copper. As my daughter commented, there's also a lot of purple. I do find it curious how often purple seems to accompany orange, especially in natural materials like the roof tiles & paving stones found throughout Florence. And sunsets, of course.

And here's a little traditional orange...

And one final splash of orange, intensified by a quick moment of sunshine...

* In case you haven't come across mention of the ROY G BIV photo challenge in past posts, it's inspired by artists Jennifer Coyne Qudeen & Julie Booth. Each month is devoted to a different color of the rainbow—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo & violet. This is the second year, and all are welcome to join in; guidelines are here.

21 March 2013

Twenty-nine electrons

Sparked by a desire to work with beads & wire, several months ago I bought a book called Bead on a Wire by Sharilyn Miller (one of the books shown in the image above). Getting organized has taken a while, but I have been slowly accumulating tools and materials, and practicing jewelry-making techniques. From the beginning I decided that copper would be my 'signature'; I like its warm color, and wanted a material that would age well and suit the beads I planned to work with. My original idea was to design earrings inspired by the beaded elements I had created for some of my artist's books.

Then one day I was sitting at the studio table, just letting my mind wander a little, when I spotted a copper coin lying on the floor. I grabbed my chasing hammer & steel block, and started pounding. (I have to wonder if the idea to try this was the latent result of following my daughter's research of artisan drum cymbals; these works of art often have interesting textures that highlight the rich qualities of the metal.) In any case, hours of hammering have led to a small pile of resurfaced one-cent & five-cent pieces, virtually indistinguishable as small change from various EU countries. The noise factor and the adverse effects on my wrist & thumb have rather limited the size of the pile, but there are just enough for a small series of wire-wrapped earrings and pendants. One of these days I'll show how they're coming along, but for now, here are a couple of photos of the raw materials.



And, still on the theme of copper, next are a few shots of my progress with one of my alphabets for ALaW (A Letter a Week). Originally I had planned to design both of the year's alphabets around the theme of 'peace' that is required for one of them, but somehow I found myself involved in making letters from copper wire. For one thing, the 'packaging peace' concept I've been working on is fairly ambitious—I was already way behind with the goal of producing 'a letter a week'—so I decided to create a simpler one while I continue to work out the details of the peace-themed alphabet.

I've been wanting to experiment with the idea of stringing wire across cutouts/open space for a while now (a small gesture toward this desire can be seen in the final photo of this entry about my indigo cubes). Ultimately, in my quest to continue exploring Florence's urban plan through unusual media, I'm imagining recreating small sections with wire—but in the meanwhile, these letters are helping me to get familiar/more comfortable with the possibilities & limitations. For now I am working with .75mm copper wire strung across 360g Murillo paper. After playing with numerous structures/layouts, I've decided that the alphabet will take the form of a six-page accordion 'book', though this may change as the experiments continue. I'm trying to achieve a balance between letters that are slightly abstract (not sure this is the right word, but a better one is not forthcoming at the moment), yet still recognizable as such in context. These first letters shown are all made up of straight strokes, but I have something a little different in mind for the curved letters.

Next is a little experiment I tried with copper wire and crystal beads. You might recognize the first image as an interpretation of the electron diagram for Copper (Cu), also known as number 29 in the periodic table—hence the twenty-nine beads (and the title of this post). If I were to pursue this line of thinking I would probably go with a considerably looser, more organic interpretation, but I'm glad I at least got this first thought out of my system...


The tangle of wires that's been growing in the studio lately reminds me a little of this network of branches (a rose trellis at the Rose Garden), and brings me to a favorite book, A Time to Blossom by Tovah Martin.

The year we ended  up coming to Italy to live, my mother gave my daughter and me a copy of A Time to Blossom. Ironically, this also ended up being the last year we had a garden of our own, and perhaps this is yet another reason I appreciate it so much. I love everything about this book: the design & layout of the pages, the halftone botanical illustrations that appear throughout, the nostalgic photos by Richard W. Brown and, most of all, Tovah's writing.

From a very young age, she felt the desire to "write about why the poppies wouldn't wake up until after the morning cartoons," and explore other mysteries of the garden. She says, "Mine wasn't a privileged youth, horticulturally speaking. My mother wasn't a world-class gardener, and she didn't tend a particularly large tract of land. But she always puttered around the backyard, planting this and that, and those moments flavored the rest of my life." Her own attitude in the garden is similarly unceremonious and spontaneous, and she seems to have held on to the sense of wonder she remembers from childhood. I especially love how her words so beautifully bring to life the distinct personalities of each flower; it's like reading about people—the impetuous ones, the sturdy ones, the un/predictable ones, the lazy ones, the crazy ones...the beauties, the stragglers & the prima donnas...

As I glanced through A Time to Blossom, it was nearly impossible to find something to share—I could easily have quoted from every chapter. But, as we above the equator cross into spring, this passage about 'bare sticks' seemed to express the same kind of delight I'm feeling as the world around me comes back to life again:

The logic behind wading out in the snow to collect armloads of bare sticks was not immediately apparent. It seemed that trudging into the fields in search of twigs in March was a good definition of a fool's errand. But you kept that opinion to yourself.

The exercise of forcing branches is tailormade for those who cannot wait out winter—and anyone under the age of twelve (as well as many much older than that) fits in that category. Shrubs, apparently, are also of an impatient nature and perfectly willing to be fooled into a flowering mode...

...I couldn't help but wonder what my father thought as he watched the procession of naked branches coming inside. I thought my mother might have taken leave of her senses as I watched her labor for several hours cutting and mashing stems and arranging sticks in her best vases with all the meticulous precision that she usually bestowed on flowers. When her work was done, the product looked very much like a bundle of kindling, elevated in status for no apparent reason.

Pussy willows and forsythias were her usual victims, cut for the purpose, but anything that had been felled by a storm was fair game. Apple branches appeared indoors regularly, as did redbuds and witch hazels. No matter what we brought in, two or three weeks went by before I stopped questioning my mother's sanity. Then, wonders happened.

To see a forsythia in spring is no big deal. To encounter pussy willows in April falls short of stopping the earth. But when you force those unpromising branches indoors, it's a different story entirely. Close up, each flowering branch has a grace that is totally lacking on the shrub or tree. Together, they form a bouquet that could easily have come right out of a fairy tale.

I spotted these bright blossoms sprouting from a potful of branches outside of a shop during a rainy errand-running outing earlier in the week—a lovely echo of Tovah Martin's branch gathering recollections...



On the note of flowers, I finally got myself organized and 'arranged' the freesia stems (shown in my last blog entry). I actually quite enjoyed them scattered randomly among small vases, creating that studio-table garden of sorts—though it originally came about more for the sake of getting everything quickly into water. Still, it was satisfying to gather them into a close-knit bouquet, since intimate arrangements are more my style. Owning a flower shop actually holds a lot of appeal for me, though it's just one of many creative lives I sometimes dream of. I think one reason I've been motivated to participate in National Novel Writing Month the past couple of years is because I enjoy constructing other worlds I'd like to inhabit. (The other main reason is so I can explore the many contradictions that exist in each of us—something I find endlessly fascinating.)





An Italian proverb says, "Marzo pazzerello guarda il sole e prendi l'ombrello," basically expressing the same sentiment as Mary in The Secret Garden, when she tries to explain when Colin asks what spring is like: "It is the sun shining on the rain and the rain falling on the sunshine..." Literally, the Italian proverb means, "Crazy March; see the sun and grab an umbrella." Despite March's reputation, it always comes as a surprise. One day Piazza Pitti might be filled with picnickers & sunbathers, the next by colorful umbrellas...You go to bed sniffling from a cold, and wake up with your nose itching because something just started blooming...Tea left over from the pot you made to keep warm yesterday becomes a refreshing glass of iced tea today...In the morning, men are calling out, "Ombrello?" from every street corner; in the afternoon they're selling sunglasses. Confusing, crazy & wonderful all at the same time: change is definitely in the air.
My words for March are linked to this transition period as the earth reawakens: wait/hope/trust...words that are helping me to stay grounded during this time of change in my own life as well.

Each time I glance up at this very last flower on the cyclamen plant my mother gave me last December (above), I see the petals as the wings of a butterfly...a sweet little symbol of hope. And I have to say, after never really appreciating cyclamens, the three-and-a-half-month tenure of this one has taught me some lessons, namely that you can find beauty if you just keep looking—and look closely enough.





And finally, to close this long entry... A lovely gift from Angela Liguori at Studio Carta arrived the other day—the 2013 calendarbook. Designing their calendarbook is an annual ritual that Angela & her collaborator, Silvana, have been observing for several years. While Roman-born Angela now lives near Boston, the childhood friends reunite in Rome during the Christmas break each year, and Angela then returns to the US with the components all ready to assemble in her studio. I just love the unusual ways they have found to define the unfolding of a year. You can read more about the latest one here, and click here to see photos of several past calendarbooks.

P.S. There will be more copper (and other variations on 'ORANGE') for ROY G BIV in the next few days...like this post, the one for orange just keeps on growing!

16 March 2013

One day in the studio

The post I've been working on since the beginning of March has grown rather unwieldy, and as I returned to it again just now I realized that this handful of photos taken during the course of yesterday would be perfectly happy on their own. After days and days of drizzle & dull light, I really enjoyed getting the camera out again—it felt like a true celebration, especially with the studio table 'garden' growing between my work spaces at either end (thanks to a visit to the plant market the day before). And I liked how the colors of the freesias echoed those in my cityscape behind. Once the sun had crept a little further into the room, I took a few photos of the blossoms basking in the sunlight before the flowers & accompanying greens had to be relocated to the dining table until nightfall. But in the late afternoon the sunny 'middle' became the perfect place to enjoy a pot of tea while I did a little research on these happy flowers with such an intoxicating fragrance.

I actually re-shot the last image today since the warmth from the light had disappeared by the time I finished my notes yesterday. Maybe some of the things I jotted down are readable now (the image can be enlarged by clicking on it).


Below are a few photos of the weekly plant & flower market held each Thursday under the loggia that runs along the west side of Piazza della Repubblica. A stroll through the plant market is one of my favorite pleasures, and this past week it made for a particularly bright spot against the backdrop of too many drizzly-skied days to count. As you can see, the yellow mimosawhich has become a symbol of 'la festa della donna' (International Women's Day, celebrated on 8 March)was still in abundance this week.

{A past Arzigogolare entry about an excursion to the plant market can be read here.}


And now back to work on my original intro entry for March; I will post it in the next few days.
In the meanwhile, I hope all is well in your corner of the world...

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