Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas in the Air, or Simple Pleasures (and a Bonus Cautionary Tale)

“Children! We’re heading for the car!” Abandoning my cart mid-aisle, I herded my kids from the Toy-R-Us, undoubtedly to shocked inquiries and possibly even wails. At the time, my son was small enough that I likely scooped him into the crook of my arm like a linebacker making a key offensive break, although I’ll admit that I don’t follow football and I’m not even sure if that is the type of thing linebackers do.

Safely bucked into our van, I explained to the kids that we had to leave our cart full of cool gifts behind because mommy accidentally left the Christmas potpourri on the stove top when we left the house, several hours earlier. This may or may not have been the same year we awoke on Christmas morning to find that the candles on our wooden armoire had mysteriously disappeared and had been replaced by ominous blackened rings where the candles had been merrily burning the night before. But I digress.

We were homeschooling at the time, so I’m sure on the way home from Toy-R-Us we probably talked a bit about melting points, the properties of flame, and the rigors of Fire Academy, but I can’t be sure. At home—which we noted to our relief was still standing and not engulfed in flame—we found a scene that looked something like this:

The above photo is not archival documentation from the scene—just a little something I shot last night that is eerily similar.

I fear, however, that the image and the above commentary do not do justice to the merits of the simmering potpourri. Using nothing more than a few well-chosen items from a common spice cabinet, it lends an instant Christmas atmosphere to a holiday gathering, a family movie night, or even an ordinary morning blogging at home alone. There is so much to gain by turning our attention to the possibilities of the potpourri itself that you should regard the above as a cautionary tale from a someone who can’t even manage the uneventful use of school glue.

The template for the potpourri—officially dubbed “Christmas in the Air” emerged as the singular redeeming feature of a scarring Women’s Ornament Exchange I attended in the late nineties. The original formulation probably exists somewhere in my personal archives, but it has adapted and morphed over the years, depending on what I have on hand, and it always turns out wonderful.

The basic blueprint relies on segments from an orange, a cinnamon stick, whole cloves and all spice. The original recipe calls for a bay leaf, which I toss in if I have one on hand. Some incantation of peppermint also appears in the original—I believe it was oil, which I never have on hand, but I have occasionally been known to toss in a starlight mint. Star anise makes a pretty addition, but its bold fragrance really changes the potpourri's aroma profile, so experiment to see what you prefer. The entire mixture goes into a water-filled sauce pan or other metal simmering pot and put on a back burner to simmer, emitting a wonderful aroma that permeates the whole house.

A package of your own personal blend makes a wonderful hostess gift or thoughtful gesture for coworkers.

Get creative with the packaging. I can see it in a brown paper bag, tied with festive ribbon, or in colored cellophane. The whole point, though, is the offering of common elements given as a simple olfactory experience. Which scientists happen to believe to be the most powerful. Which can be a good or bad, depending on whether we’re talking about the simple pleasure of spicy goodness, or the heavy stench of smoke and flame.

So--one little thing. Don't forget the water. Add lots of it when you start the potpourri, and check it every now and then, to see if it needs more—because water, you know, evaporates, especially if you go out shopping for several hours.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Medium is the Big Idea of the Day

All I knew was that I wanted to do something with a snapshot of Shakespeare Street. I’d taken the picture the previous summer, at the request of my dearest friend Lori, during an ice cream break in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Although she’s the most creative librarian in the world, Lori’s not a photographer—but she instantly “saw” the possibilities of the Shakespeare Street sign against the brick backdrop and wanted me to capture the image. Later that evening, I posted it to her facebook wall and didn’t think of the picture again until her birthday rolled around months later.

At the time, I happened to be writing an article about acrylic medium, and the more I explored the possibilities of this bottled liquid magic, the more inspired I became. With an old frame, a few shredded pages, and an enlarged print, Shakespeare Street was about to become a unified work of mixed media art.

Acrylic medium is the binding agent used in acrylic paint. Think of it as paint minus color. Serious acrylic painters use it to thin their paints when they want to create an illusion of transparency, say, in a water scene. But because it is a binding agent, it will adhere to any surface that will accept acrylic paint—making it a great medium for collage projects. So I decided to put it to the test and create a Shakespeare-themed collage frame for an 8x10 print of the street sign.

Let me just put it out here, up front: I’m really picky. I say this because there are definitely less expensive ways to put together a similar project, but I was aiming for some pretty specific results. Feel free to experiment. Try a 5x7 print, for instance, if the 8x10 seems daunting. Print it at home, if you’d like. I took my print job to a local camera store that has since gone out of business. If you’re lucky enough to have a camera store, by all means check them out. It only cost about $5 to get the print made, and when I wasn’t really happy with the crop, the owner instantly printed a second print for me—and let me keep the first one, too. That’s a level of service you’ll never get at a Super Store.

As far as the old frame I mentioned above— I ended up buying one at full price, even though I scoped the thrift stores first. There are some stellar deals to be found on frames in the second run market. I know an art instructor who regularly trolls yard sales and consignment shops for frames to keep in his studio. His personal standard is never to pay more than $2.00 for a frame, but he must keep his sources close to his vest—I’ve never found deals quite that good.

This time, I shelled out about $12.00 on a new frame because I wanted a flat surface—no beveled edges. This was because my plan was to cover the frame in its entirety with layered strips of shredded text by and about the Bard. I didn’t want to deal with any grooves or valleys.

For the collage material, I hit the bargain table at my local book store. If time is on your side, or you aren’t looking for something as specific as works by a particular author, you could browse the bookshelf at the thrift store while you’re looking for your $2.00 frame, but this time, I stuck with the sure thing.

Armed with an enlarged print, a wooden frame, and a copy of Twelfth Night, I grabbed my acrylic medium from my paint cabinet and prepared my work space. Oh? You don’t have acrylic medium in your cabinet? Don’t panic. You’ll find it wherever artist quality acrylic paints are sold (say, at Michaels).

Mine looks like this:

Blurry, I know. But I'm just not up to reshooting. Hopefully, you can make out the price tag. If not, it's 13.99. Not the cheapest binding agent in the world, but this is no .69 cent Elmer’s back to school fare. You might be tempted to think you can do the same with a bottle of school glue or even some Modge Poge, but you won’t get the pro results you’ll find inside the bottle of acrylic medium, so don’t scimp here . As the condition of my bottle may indicate, there are a whole lot of projects possibilities inside that little container, so just give it a try.

The first thing I did was rough up the finish on my new frame with a bit of sandpaper, effectively turning my new frame into a distressed, thrift store-esque find.

This was where I had to remind myself that I bought the frame for its shape and design, not the finish! I then began ripping out select phrases and selections from my copy of Twelfth Night. I selected this particular work because it had a lot of commentary, and I’d be able to find phrases and references to other Shakespeare works as well. This is the part where I reminded myself that I bout the text as art supplies, not as reading material. (Read this entire paragraph as a commercial for using found materials, if at all possible—imagine the pride of completing a stunning piece of art without spending anything…except the $14 on the acrylic medium…)

I then saturated each scrap with medium, strategically placing and leach phrase or quote where I wanted it to appear. I layered the paper in certain sections. If you do this, it’s important to let each layer dry before adding more wet materials over top. Acrylic medium dries quickly—much faster than glue—so this wasn’t a problem even for the most impatient artist I know (ahem…I prefer “efficient” to “hasty” by the way).

After all of the collage pieces were in place, I decided to use the acrylic medium, for its full magic value by adding a bit of acrylic paint and giving it a hint of color. My first thought was to go with the Old World theme and “antique” it with a bit of warmth—I think I mixed some sort of brown/yellow/orange. Fortunately I did this on an unused scrap which I placed over the frame after it dried to test the effect, which was dreadful. I gave the image itself a critical eye and realized that despite all the brick, the image was loaded with cool under tones from the windows, and I decided to play those up. I mixed a bit a paynes grey and blue in with my medium and brushed it lightly over the entire surface of the frame. And I liked it very much, so I stopped.

This project has unlimited variations, so I hope you’ll have some fun with it. You can use color collage material, or play with the color you add to the acrylic medium. You could also mix confetti or other additives into the medium itself for unlimited effects. Transparent layers of color, alternating layers of color and texture, anything is possible! You’ll find that as long as keep your layers somewhat thin and let them dry between layers, the medium won’t clump or peel. If you create any original works, I hope you’ll take pictures and post them on my facebook page to inspire us all!

Sunday, December 5, 2010


In elementary school, it was the Special Stash of super sized construction paper I begged from my art teacher for a personal project. In middle school, it was the Bad Novels I toted around in tattered notebooks with ink splattered hands. In high school, it became stage make up and set design and sketching portraits using celebrity head shots in my Teen Beat as reference photos. And more than anything? It was Cindy's Corner, my own prime piece of pulp real estate in the school newspaper.

In the presence of strong indicators such as the above, a journalism program, or art school would have seemed a no-brainer. But it took some floundering in my early adulthood before I realized that the creative arts comprised the backbone of my existence, and that I didn't just want to see what I could do with it, I had to.

And that's what I've been doing ever since. Writing and creating, and I've stopped viewing these outlets as competitors. I can't say that realizing my calling looks much different than the aforementioned floundering, but it does give me things for which to aim and hope. And it gives me, in a single word, a unifying perspective on my free form life.

That's what ARTicles is, for me. It's structure; a name for what I do, and a vehicle for me to share. Because that's what ARTicles, the blog, is: an invitation to join me in the artistic process. Yes, I'll be sharing my work--but I'll also be passing along ideas to help you embrace creativity in your life, in ways that are meaningful to you. Here in this virtual studio, you're welcome to get as involved as you want, even if that just means observing the floundering--because there will definitely be floundering.

But we'll also be celebrating: finished projects, gifts, and stories, too--a working studio that evolves into a gallery. I hope you'll join me