Saturday, November 27, 2010

On Instinct and Art

At a recent used book sale, I picked up a copy of Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct. While the title tapped into, at least in part, a subject that I have discussed with numerous former students – that of the nature of art – reading further, I found Dutton’s premise rather provocative. Basically, he sees the concept of art, and what we find aesthetically pleasing, as something that has been honed through natural selection from the time we branched off from chimpanzees.

He initially illustrates this point by discussing the concept of the landscape via a study conducted by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. In “America's Most Wanted,” Komar and Melamid conducted polls and focus groups in ten countries (funded by a grant) to study individual artistic preferences. The results? Across countries and cultures, individuals expressed an overwhelming desire to see landscapes with water, people and animals, with blue the predominant color, and rejected abstract designs along with yellow, orange, gold and teal. Since I strongly favor abstract painting over landscape (preferring to let my camera do the landscape talking), does this mean evolutionary doom and a solitary life? Komar and Melamid went on to create the “perfect landscape painting.” No one wanted to take it home and display it, so there’s hope for me just yet.

Dutton goes on to describe other important landscape features, derived from other social science hypotheses, that include certain trees, the ability to derive mystery from the setting (like, is there a path that leads to somewhere beyond the scope of the painting?) and the concept of “prospect and refuge” – an ability to survey the vista, while also having an ability to hide somewhere in the scene. So, a house, or a cave, or some other sort of shelter is also important. Hmmmm … see the connection to our hunter-gatherer ancestors?

In The Hermitage - 2009
Acrylic on canvas
While I am still reading the book (so I’ll hold off on a final critique until I’m done), I did have to then look at the one landscape painting I have in my home. Based on a photograph, it has several of the elements described above … and it also incorporates orange, since it is an autumnal scene. It also reflects my deep appreciation of post-impressionism, but that’s another post.

What do you think of Dutton’s hypothesis? Reflect on your own artistic preferences – do they echo the above, or are they counterpoints? The jacket to the book includes “Heart of the Andes” by Frederic Church (1859). While I appreciate the quality of the composition and the artistic craftsmanship of the work, it leaves me cold. What is your initial reaction to the book cover’s art? I would love to hear your thoughts on this, so do feel free to leave comments.

More later on the rest of the book, but in the meantime, enjoy my Thanksgiving day montage.


Monday, November 22, 2010


I woke up this morning to a muffled kind of stillness. It took me mere seconds to look out the window and consciously realize what the stillness meant – snow! Gray, white, cold, wind-driven, commuter-walked-upon snow. This is very early in the season for the Pacific Northwest lowlands to get such a dusting. Don’t tell my deck, however; it is currently covered in about an inch of the stuff.

So, warm woolen mittens in hand, I went out into the white fluff to do some quick snow removal. No shovel needed – just a light whisk, whisk of a broom, to be followed by salt later today, once it starts to really cool down.
Fifteen minutes and two ruddy cheeks later, the deed was complete. There is nothing like a little snow to make everything indoors all the more cozy. The coffee tastes richer and warmer. The cat is just that teeny bit more excited to stare out the window. It gives the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday an especially thankful glow.

So, with that in mind, I’ll share with you my simple recipe for fresh cranberry sauce. Make it and think of snow and the play of jewel tones on white. Happy warm and cozy Thanksgiving!

Fresh Cranberry Sauce

12 oz. fresh cranberries
1 cup champagne or good, dry rosé
¾ c. sugar
½ c. dried sweetened cranberries
¼ c. any other dried fruit of choice (raid the cupboard – hey, it’s Thanksgiving!)

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently for about 10 minutes, stirring a few times. Remove from heat and pour mixture into a serving dish.

Let stand, and serve at room temperature with the meal. May also be made up to two days ahead. Cover and keep refrigerated until about an hour before serving, when you can remove from the refrigerator and bring to room temperature.   

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fidelity and Passion

In case you missed it, Bruce Springsteen spent an hour with Jimmy Fallon on Tuesday’s Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. It was the only late night outing for Springsteen as he promotes the The Promise: Darkness on the Edge of Town (the re-issue of the 1978 album, with all kinds of musical and personal extras).

I still have goosebumps remembering the musical highlight of the evening, when Springsteen, Roy Bittan and Steven Van Zant, along with The Legendary Roots Crew (hands down the band of late night television) did a version of Because The Night. Watching it was part out-of-body experience, part spiritual revival. It was, quite simply, fidelity and passion personified. Fallon reported Wednesday night that there is a permanent dent in the floor of the set.

I am, admittedly, a late convert to the church of Springsteen. While I am certainly familiar (!) with the Born in the USA album, it was actually Tunnel of Love that truly started the conversion, which was completed with The Rising. While timing may have played some part (released in 2002 after 9/11), its spare, plaintive appeal struck a deep internal chord.

Here’s the link to the YouTube clip of the performance that absolutely brought all who witnessed it to their knees. It is one thing for a young Springsteen to write "... they can't hurt you now." It's quite another to see him perform it with such authenticity three decades later.

Oh. My.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Month of Books Continues

While the timing wasn't planned, I now have a third book to share with you in November – I have just received my copy of Nicky Epstein’s Knitting Block by Block.

Just in time for holiday gift-making, Knitting Block by Block is a compendium of squares – an amazing array of knitting techniques and stitches – as well as tips on how to utilize the squares. Of some interest is a pictoral index of all the squares, made to be copied, cut, and individually placed into one’s own potential design templates. Additionally, there is a brief section on edging and square joining techniques (most of which are crochet) to help the crafter in the all-important finishing aspect of projects.

The blocks themselves are gorgeous – from the simple to the sublime. Epstein also includes several projects to make; however, I viewed these as merely so much imagination grease.

I attended a day of classes taught by Nicky this previous August in support of the book, during which participants could pre-order Knitting Block by Block. Each student was instructed to bring up to three 12x12 squares to class in either garter, stockinette or seed stitch. I, along with many of my classmates, only brought one – but still walked away with a completed project. There are three adorable animals included in the book, each needing only one square, and I made a cat. All students also walked away with many design ideas – and this is the strength of Epstein’s latest book. The blocks are fresh and fun, and there are many design possibilities.

My only issue with the book stems from Nicky’s one criticism (and it was very gentle!) of my work during the workshops – my, shall we say, lackluster sewing skills. It was clear after completing my cat, with its seam down the belly that would have made Frankenstein’s forehead stitches look like excellent plastic surgery, that sewing is not my strong suit. I knew this prior to class. I avoid sewing at all possible costs. Really.

In Knitting Block by Block, however, many knit embellishments are sewn on to completed blocks, and several projects have sewn block seams. This is the downside of the book – many knitters and crocheters just don’t want to deal with seams, or more generally, sewing. Given the various, virtually seamless garment construction options available to the experienced knitter, it might appear that Epstein is bucking current trends.

I choose to overlook this aspect of an otherwise well-conceived crafting book. Instead, I’d rather focus on the wide array of new stitches/combinations I can explore, as well as the portable nature of anything made from the book. I already have a project in my contemplation, using my own choice of blocks. Stimulating the designing and crafting imagination are strengths of Epstein the instructor, as well as Epstein the author.

So along with all that holiday baking, and dreaming of Sicilian multi-course meals, you will probably find me making blocks for the next few months. If my imagination is greased by any more books in November … I’ll definitely let you know.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

It Weighs Eight Pounds

bon appétit’s Desserts, that is.

Yesterday afternoon, Barbara Fairchild, bon appétit’s editor-in-chief, stopped at Grand Central Bakery in Seattle on the Desserts book tour. Those in attendance were treated to several of the tome’s recipes, whipped up by Grand Central’s bakers, prior to the start of the presentation.

After tasting the goodies (I was in cookie heaven – classic chocolate chip (p. 530) and caramel (p. 547), as well as sipping some sparkling wine, Barbara treated the packed
room to everything from her favorite recipe in the book (the pumpkin cheesecake with marshmallow-sour cream topping and gingersnap crust, p. 188-89) to one of her essential baking utensils (a big Sears mixing bowl bought many years ago) to tips on how to break into all aspects of the food industry – since she’s done just about everything during her extensive run with the magazine.

Barbara’s hope for Desserts is that it becomes the go-to baking book for every baker. At a whopping 686 pages (including extensive indices), one cannot imagine needing any other baking reference source.  “The cookbook for all things sweet and wonderful" has tips on how to stock a dessert pantry,
as well as a basic techniques section to get the uninitiated … well … initiated. Jam-packed with gorgeous photos, the recipes are rated on a whisk scale: one whisk is easiest through four whisks - when one should be prepared for a baking extravaganza.

While Barbara graciously signed many, many books, those of us waiting in line started discussing the book, our own baking histories, and the current general state of cooking magazines. Personally, I am a Joy of Cooking gal – I own only five cook books (six now), so Joy is my go-to cooking and baking bible. In fact, once I had an opportunity to sit down with Desserts, I immediately looked
for a recipe I've been making the last few Thanksgivings from Joy. It’s in Desserts, so I expect the baking comparisons to begin.

Stay tuned. And happy baking - all eight pounds worth.  

Friday, November 5, 2010

Anatomy of Blanket-Making

1.  Find a blanket you want to make – in this instance, I chose the Mod-on-Mod blanket from one of my favorite books – Lisa Shobhana Mason's Yarnplay.

2.  Purchase yarn. And purchase. And purchase. And purchase. Which I did, since I decided to double the size of the original, in order to fit my bed.

3. Start making square motifs. And make motifs. And make motifs. And make motifs. I did for about three months. Fortunately, not every day.

4. After finishing the blanket pieces, pile them up and behold the leaning tower. Also focus on color, because it will be important once you start putting the blanket together.

5. Lay out motifs on floor in an order that pleases you. Then, repile your motifs (on, say, the kitchen counter) in that pleasant order, remembering your ordering system. This is very important.  Ask me how I know.

6.Decide on your method of attaching the squares. I avoid sewing at all possible costs, so the single crochet method was my preference. Besides, it added an additional textural note. 

7. Put squares together, and then, if desired, create a border for your blanket. I desired. I slip stitched four rows around this behemoth. It added a clean finishing touch, and used up most of my remaining yarn.

8. Finally, put it on your bed (or wherever else you plan to use your blanket), let your pet conduct quality control, then enjoy. My blanket received the George Bailey paw of approval.

9. and 10. If you're truly feeling the matchy-match love (like I did), go ahead and craft a co-
ordinating pillow.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

An Evening of Sicilian Word and Wine

On November 1st, Robert Camuto put Sicily and its wine and vintners front and center at two Seattle venues.

Initially, at The Elliott Bay Book Company, he read an excerpt from Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey before a curious crowd willing to brave the damp November rain. Camuto deftly fielded audience questions ranging from current Sicilian winemaking practices to the present state of the mafia on the island. He also graciously signed books and chatted with everyone at the completion of the reading.

Camuto, avec famille, then took his Sicilian tour to Columbia City’s La Medusa for an extensive wine tasting. Showcasing many of the winemakers in Palmento, La Medusa expertly poured whites, reds and dessert wines for a hearty crowd in its warm and inviting dining space. The crowd was a friendly cross-section of wine industry and food service professionals, writers, travelers, foodies, and at least one group rigorously taking extensive tasting notes (you know who you are – good luck with the Thanksgiving Day cranberry sauce!). Many left with Palmento, or wine bottles, or both; all exited the event with a new-found (or renewed) appreciation for Sicily.
While my photos are slightly art house-ish (thanks to dim indoor lighting and no flash), they nevertheless capture the warmth of the evening. Thanks to Robert for stopping in Seattle on his book tour, and to his patient wife and son for sharing their journey with us.

Read Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey and Corkscrewed: Adventures in the New French Wine Country. Let Camuto’s words inform and inspire your next wine or travel discovery.