Monday, July 06, 2015

One Stitch Follows Another

It's been a while since I've posted to the blog. I had gotten myself into the stupid mindset of thinking that I had to write something truly momentous, and so of course, I wrote nothing at all. 

I'm going to cut myself some slack, and not worry so much about perfection. I'm going to give myself permission to use unedited cellphone photos, because I'd gotten a bit hung-up on only posting "real" photographs. 

What is it they say?  

Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.

Thursday, April 16, 2015



For the last few summers, Robb and I have collected the Anise Swallowtail caterpillars that we find on our fennel, and raise them in our pantry.  This keeps them safe from hungry birds, and other predators.  The caterpillars eat voraciously, and form chrysalises quite quickly.

After that, it's anyone's guess how long it will take for the butterflies to emerge.  Most come out in a few weeks, but some overwinter.  We need the space, so we don't keep a tank of chrysalis-encrusted twigs in our pantry all winter.  We stick them in a flowerpot in the garden, and hope for the best.

On March first, I was watering my plants when I noticed this butterfly, freshly emerged from it's cocoon.  It was unfurling its wings and gaining strength.  It was a lovely surprise on a beautiful spring morning.

*  *  *  *  *

Blog readers who haven't abandoned us must be wondering when Robb and I are going to emerge from our blog-stasis.  In truth, we've been hugely busy, and I've been simply too tired to write about any of what's going on.

And this week, I'm also sick as hell with laryngitis, and what's probably bronchitis.  My physical state is not particularly enchanting at the moment.

But at some point, I'll re-emerge.  And I'll write about all the lovely things that have been going on.  

But it may take a little while.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Wrapped in the Flag


If there has been a lack of activity on the blog of late, it is because I've been so inundated with work.  I've had virtually no life. I work thirteen hour days, and then pass out on the couch, watching British gardening shows on tv.  Apparently, I find watching other people work very soothing.

Here's what we did, the week before last.

On Friday March 13th, we drew a series of rectangles on the paper that covers our studio floor.  We spread the massive backdrop fabric out, and then carefully stapled it inside the boundaries of the boxes we'd drawn. You'll notice that we go pretty much from wall-to-wall.  There's about two feet between the fabric and the wall on the left side of the photograph. On the other side, the fabric goes right up to the concrete floor of our spray booth -- not so easy to staple into that.

I cooked a batch of corn starch, and sprayed it onto the fabric.  This "sizes" the fabric, making it easier to paint.

Over the weekend, I painted a base-coat of white on the fabric, and then applied a watercolor-y underpainting. We're painting the Union Jack, but in our version, there's a lot of texture and staining.  The underpainting is painted in dirtied primary colors. In this photo, I've finished the blue and the yellow, and am preparing to paint the red undercoat.

Because the final product will be so huge, we painted this in four sections.  When assembled, it will measure over seventy feet in width.

Once the underpainting is complete, we have to mask all the areas of the flag that we don't want to paint.  Here, we're using four inch wide automotive masking tape (the green stuff) and four foot wide sign-painters' masking paper ) the white stuff with the brown backing).

Here's where we were on Wednesday March 18th.  I've started painting the blue areas of the flag.  This flag wants to look somewhat faded, so I built up the colors with layers of spray.  I used a hand-held garden sprayer to apply my paint.  All colors were custom-mixed in our studio.

Here's all the blue completed, on Saturday. You may notice something strange about the diagonals. Because of the way the scenery goes together, the shapes are extra-complex.  I won't be entirely comfortable until I see it all go together.  The mathematical aspect of this project was remarkably tricky.

The masking is reconfigured, so that I can paint the red areas.  This was remarkably time-consuming.

Here's how things looked at the end of the day on Saturday.  I've painted the first coat of red.  Red is a remarkably transparent pigment, so these sections will need many layers of paint.

All the painting was finished by the end of the day on Sunday. The sun is starting to set, and there are dramatic shadows on the floor of the studio. 

In addition to the red paint, there are more layers of staining, to add texture to the flag.

All the masking has been removed, I think the flag looks wonderful!  Removing the masking took a remarkably long time.  We spent Monday morning getting to this stage.

Here's a photo that my coworker Lynne Eve took.  Emma and Anna are drawing guidelines that will help the carpenters attach the flag to the hard scenery. 

For a sense of scale, consider this: Anna (who is wearing the red shirt) is almost six feet tall. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

What the Heck is a Scenic Artist?


I'd like to invite you into my studio for a glimpse of what we've been working on over the past ten days.  I am in charge of painted scenery for the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where we are in the midst of building a fascinating show called Head of Passes.  Essentially, we're building a large two-story house, piece by piece.

Tuesday, February 10th

The large grey shapes on the right of the photo are each eight feet wide and twelve feet long.  That's some of the lumber that will make up the stage set.  We paint the back of everything a neutral grey, partially for lighting reasons, but mostly for flame retardancy.

The boards in the pile at the center of the photograph are eight-foot lengths of medium density fiberboard (mdf). We will be treating these boards to look like old wooden siding boards.  We're taking a fresh new material and making it look like the siding on a lovely older Southern home.

We spend a lot of time in my studio making newly built things look appropriately aged.  It's ironic, because in my spare time, I try to make my little old house look new.  At home, Robb and I spent a year and a half scraping funky old siding boards to make them look fresh.  And at work, I'm making newly milled lumber look historic.

Wednesday Morning, February 11th

On the left side of the photo are some grey boards on sawhorses.  That's the beginning of the siding project.  We're applying a custom-formulated "schmoo" mixture and then embossing it with the texture of woodgrain.  Medium density fiberboard, the material we're using, is an extremely smooth product made of wood pulp, entirely unlike actual lumber.  You can see some of the grey textured boards, drying on the floor in center-back of the photo.  To give you some scale, each board is eight feet long.

On the sawhorses on the right side of the photo are the components of a staircase.  The white things are the stair's risers.  The reddish-brown things are custom-stained stair treads.  And the grey things to the far right of the photo are the inner structure of the stairs.  They may look tiny, but they are truly massive.

Wednesday Evening, February 11th

The staircase parts have left the studio.

The props department is using my space to paint some custom-built furniture.

The entire stack of siding boards for our house's "Florida room" have been textured.  You can see finished grey boards behind the wooden chair in the back of this photo.  We've already started priming these boards with a two-toned blended base color.  Those are the pink shapes on the right of the photograph.

In addition to all that, you can see some orange-red rectangles on sawhorses on the back-right of the photograph. That's oak plywood that we've mixed a stain for, and which will become a parquet border for our house's living room floor.

Saturday, February 14th

I skipped forward a few days, and am now photographing from the opposite side of the studio.

The stained oak that will become the parquet has left the studio.  The carpenters will cut thousands of pieces and assemble them in a lovely geometric pattern.

The Florida room siding has been stacked up.  You can see it on a cart at the back-center of the photograph.  Remember that each board is eight feet long.

We're now working on exterior siding boards.  They've been textured with a fake wood grain, and all have their base coat of paint on them.

One of my coworkers calculated that the siding for this show would stretch a third of a mile, if it were laid end-to-end.  Since we walk up and down each board many, many times in the course of preparing them, that's a whole lot of walking.

Monday, February 16th

All of the exterior siding boards have been painted with a dark wash, to accentuate the textural woodgrain. Once that dried, they were painted with a glossy transparent sealer, to make them look like wet boards in the rain. The show takes place during a rainstorm, and this helps reinforce the show's atmosphere.

On the far left side of the photo, you can see black things on sawhorses.  Those are parts of our house's roof.

Tuesday Morning, February 17th

The exterior siding boards have left the studio.  You can see the sticks we set them on when they're drying.This allows air to get on all sides, and keeps the boards from sticking to the floor.

The roof pieces have left the studio.

Mary is painting a window frame.  There are a large number of custom-built windows and doors in this show.  Once again, we built windows, and then have to make them look aged.  The trick is to make the architecture look old, but not crappy.

Lunchtime, Tuesday, February 17th

We're putting the first coat of stain on the oak slats that will become the floor for our house's living room. All stains used in our studio are made from color mixes created by our artists.  We are matching a scenic designer's vision, and can't just buy whatever is for sale at the local hardware store. Likewise, we mill all our own planks.  That oak entered our workshop as plywood sheets, and our carpenters cut it to the exact dimensions required for the project.

Off to the left of the photo, you can see long pale planks on sawhorses.  This is the start of the floor for the Florida room.

Tuesday Evening, February 17th

The oak planks have been stacked up, awaiting further work.

We are now staining the planks for the Florida room. These planks are massive.

The pink boards on the right side of the photo are the interior siding for the Florida room.  These will look like "pickled" wood when they are finished.

Lunchtime, Wednesday February 18th

Work continues on the Florida room planks.  Some planks are painted multiple colors, to make it look like they are actually made up of different boards.

On the far right, Zoe is working on one of the fake brick chimneys.  These too are made of mdf.  We'll be treating them with more texture, to simulate brickwork.

On the far right, the siding for the Florida room gets a dark wash which accentuates the woodgrain texture. 

At the back and center of the photograph, you can see the oak slats getting their second coat of stain.

Wednesday Evening, February 18th

Work continues on the oak flooring.  Remember that each of those tiny-looking planks is eight feet long.

Likewise, the planks for the Florida room are also eight feet long.

Which shows just how long the planks in the middle of the photograph are.

Thursday Evening, February 19th

In addition to my painting duties, I had a day of meetings, shopping and bill-paying. So I only took photos at the end of the day.

The Florida room siding planks have been completed, and are stacked up until the carpenters are ready to attach them.

The oak planks are getting sealed with a waterproof varnish.

Work continues on the large planks.

On the far left of the photo, you can see two pink objects.  Those are twenty-foot tall fake chimneys.

In the back of the photo, custom-welded steel frames are resting on sawhorses.  We paint them to keep them from rusting.

Thursday Evening Again

This photo is taken from the opposite side of the studio.  You get a better view of the steel frames and of the beautiful oak floorboards.

Read, who is standing in the very middle of the room, is six feet tall. I think that gives you a sense of the scale on which we're working.

This week, I have heard several people make disparaging comments to me about how lazy, unprofessional and undependable artists are.  I should like to vehemently refute that stereotype.  All the artists I work with are consummate professionals and total bad-asses.  The entire team at Berkeley Rep is amazing, and I'm honored to be a part of it.

Phooey on stereotypes, anyway!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Monday Garden Update


The San Francisco Bay Area often has an odd bit of warm weather in February.  My memory tells me that we typically spend a glorious few days running around in short sleeves, before returning to our proper winter.  This year is that there really hasn't been much of a winter.  So much of the rest of the country is covered in snow. And we're stuck in climate limbo.

In the last few days, my pluot tree has started to bloom, as have our fava beans.

Our younger hens -- who we had nicknamed "The Adventure Chickens" have been flying over the fence into the vegetable garden.  Our poor chard has been reduced to a cluster of stems.  The kale looks equally bad.

Robb has been building more fencing for the garden.  He individually mills each picket.  You can see an unpainted bundle of sticks on the table in the center of this photo.  The fence pictured here is protecting the strawberry and currant plants, which I'm certain our fruit-obsessed hens would love to devour.

The string that runs along our neighbor's garage marks where we'll be adding more fencing.  Remember the stripping-and-repainting project?  I'm not sure I ever wrote about replacing the window but it is such an improvement.

If you're wondering about the round black thing on the grass, or about the thing to the left of the glider bench, that's how we grow new grass.  If Robb and I did not share our yard with six voracious hens, we could just amend our soil with compost and sprinkle grass seed.  However, both those activities send our chickens into a destructive frenzy.  So we cover newly seeded areas with wire mesh until the grass is strong enough to withstand the attentions of our hens.

I bought a dozen Jersey Knight asparagus crowns at Pollinate Farm & Garden on Sunday after the cheese making class.  I dug up the soil near the World's Ugliest Fence, and added heaps of compost.  I'm not really sure what to expect from these plants.  We had asparagus in our vegetable garden when I was a growing up in Maryland.  The climate in Northern California is so different from where I learned to garden originally.  For some reason, I find planting perennial vegetables daunting.  This, of course, makes no sense.  I'm unafraid of grafting fruit trees, or of catching swarms of wild honeybees.  But committing to asparagus makes me nervous.

I'm a weirdo.

The asparagus is planted in front of the cinderblock wall on the left side of this photograph.  On the right side of the photo, you can see our fava bean patch.

In previous years, I stupidly bought beans that were marketed for garden soil amendment, and which may not have been intended for human consumption at all.  Unsurprisingly, neither Robb nor I were particularly keen on those beans.  This year we're growing the Windsor variety, which we hope we'll enjoy.

And speaking of beans, here's a photo of today's lunch.  We finally opened the pickled beans we made last summer.  These particular beans are Roc d'Or, a beautiful yellow variety.  The boiled eggs are from our hens -- all but Harriet and Lydia are laying at the moment.  And the beautiful loaf of bread was baked by Robb.

Life is good.

And if you want to see what other gardeners are up to, skip on over to Daphne's blog for her weekly garden party.  It's always fun to see what folks are up to.  (I imagine that Daphne is buried in snow at the moment.)

A Year Ago

Two Years Ago

Three Years Ago

Four Years Ago

Five Years Ago

Six Years Ago

Seven Years Ago

Eight Years Ago   

Nine Years Ago   



Sunday, February 15, 2015

Blessed are the Cheesemakers


One of my favorite local shops is Pollinate Farm & Garden in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland.  They sell everything one might want for one's urban farm.  They've got beekeeping supplies, baby chicks, garden seeds and plants, and tools of every description.  In addition to selling all manner of tempting goodies, Pollinate offers fascinating classes.

On Sunday I took a cheesemaking class with Louella Hill, the San Francisco Milk Maid.  Louella is a wonderful teacher.

Even the shop cat was enchanted by the Milk Maid.

Our class was guided through the process of making fresh farmer's cheese and kefir.  Here we are cutting curds, and releasing the liquid whey.  Cheese making is a beautiful tactile process. 

In this photo, the newly made cheese is being drained.  Every student took home tasty fresh cheese, kefir and whey.  Robb and I added this fresh farmhouse-style cheese to our lunch, which we ate in the backyard.  While much of the country is buried in snow, we're enjoying an uncanny warm spell.

If you're in the East Bay, do stop by Pollinate Farm & Garden.

You're certain to find something both useful and delightful.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Goo-y Ducks


This handsome fellow is a male Surf Scoter.  He is one of the many splendid species of waterfowl we see in the winters here in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Over the last week or so, I've spent most of my free time (outside of my already very physical job) volunteering at the International Bird Rescue center, because this bird and many others have been contaminated by a mysterious substance that has covered their bodies with an unknown goo. Hundreds of birds washed up on our shores dead, and hundreds beached themselves.  The International Bird Rescue center took in over three hundred birds covered in a strange substance, remarkably like rubber cement.

These birds received superlative medical care.  Upon arrival at the center, their health was assessed.  Once they were strong enough, the birds were thoroughly cleaned, first with baking soda and vinegar, and then with Dawn dish washing detergent.

The newly-cleaned birds were housed in specially-constructed heated boxes to dry before they were assessed to see if they could be moved to rehab pools.  Ducks do best on the water, but if their feathers are fouled (see what I did there?) they are unable to float or stay warm properly.

I worked alongside wildlife experts who took excellent care of the recovering birds.

I also did a staggering amount of laundry.  We can't just grab ducks and carry them around.  When handling these wild animals, we carefully wrap them in towels, to keep them from struggling and to reduce their stress.  The International Bird Rescue center has an industrial-scale laundry facility, which ran all day long.

Feeding hundreds of birds is a massive task.  Every day, frozen fish and shrimp must be thawed.  Mealworms must be prepared.

Larger birds can eat entire fish.

The smaller grebes and buffleheads need to have their food cut up into bite-sized pieces.  These little dudes are about the size of your classic bathtub rubber ducky.

As of Sunday, eighty-one healthy birds were released back into the wild.  One hundred and thirty-two were still in care.  Multiple testing labs are still working to figure out the nature and source of the contaminant.  Trained staff and over three hundred volunteers have worked to help these animals.

And the work isn't done.

Because there is no obvious culprit to pay to undo this damage, the International Bird Rescue center is paying all the bills for this catastrophic event.  Medical care, food, water and electricity cost money -- lots and lots of money.  I believe that since we humans have done so much damage to the natural world, since we have done so much harm to wild creatures, we need to take responsibility and clean up the mess.

I've given my time and I've donated money.  If you can, please consider making a donation to International Bird Rescue. Please help a wild bird fly free again. 


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