Friday, January 28, 2011

The Art of Being "Infinitely Creative" in the Kitchen

When I was a teenager, I spent a month roughing it in the mountains at The Mountain Institute's Spruce Knob Mountain Center, which, to the uninitiated, is essentially a rustic hippie commune nestled in the wilds of West Virginia, complete with yurts and composting toilet. The rules were simple, treat others with respect, pitch in on chores, eat meals together, sleep anywhere you want, and write daily. We had the run of the campus, spending days and nights in the big yurts, hiking through the woods, gazing up at the stars, or writing in the partially buried "Earth Shelter," our computer lab. There were about 10 of us kids, mixed genders, all of us about 17 years old. Our chaperones placed tremendous trust in us, considering the "sleep anywhere" rule, and the propensity of teenagers to take the first opportunity to run off and have sex somewhere... To my knowledge, that never happened. Instead, hiked the mountains, carrying our journals around with us everywhere we went, writing down all our observations and most intimate feelings, and then we gathered together to share. We came together before meals, holding hands, and gave thanks, sharing with the group anything that had inspired us. It was Utopia, a safe-haven, perfect for drawing a studious introvert out of her shell. We took turns making meals, each washing our own dishes when the eating was finished. The kitchen was always open, and sometimes we would congregate to share a midnight snack. I think it was Liz who came up with the catchphrase, being "infinitely creative" in the kitchen, and it has stuck with me, as have so many moments from that summer. I try to take that 'infinite creativity' with me wherever I go, even in my own kitchen, much to my husband's occasional dismay, and the surprise of his co-workers when they come for dinner and find that my meatloaf is actually superb. I love to make something from nothing, to take seemingly random ingredients and put them together to make a cohesive dish, where the sum of the parts rarely equal the whole. It has caused the occasional inedible dish, but also many savory treats, from cheeseballs to casseroles, with some dishes being requested again and again. Today I created a new dish, this time starting my creative process in the aisle of the store, not the almost bare cupboards of my kitchen. I can tell you that only 50% of my children liked it (Eli's vote doesn't count, because he doesn't like anything), but, personally, I felt joy in both the making and the eating of my chicken and spinach casserole. Below is my recipe (written down as I added ingredients to the bowl). Feel free to try it yourself, to bring your own infinite creativity to the recipe, and post suggestions in the comments.

Spinach and Chicken Casserole
  • 6 oz package of chicken flavored stuffing mix
  • 2, 9.75 oz cans white chicken meat (drained)
  • 27 oz can pre-cooked Fancy Spinach (drained)
  • 1 envelope onion sup mix
  • 16 oz jar Ragu Alfredo sauce
  • 10.5 oz can condensed cream of mushroom soup 
  • 2.8 oz can French fried onions (topping)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix all ingredients (except onions) in a large mixing bowl. Pour in a 9X13X2 glass casserole dish. Top with French fried onions. Bake for approx. 25 minutes. Enjoy!

Note: this is likely not a low sodium food, so if you are watching your intake, you may want to avoid this.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dear Sculpture Professor,

I know it's been several years since I was in your class, but there are a few things eating at me that I would like to get off my chest. First of all, I would like to say that your classes are practically the only courses in my college career in which my grade was less than an A. This was fair. I did not spend enough time in the studio, nor did I buy quality art supplies with which to craft my projects. In fact, there is a piece or two on which you may have even graded me higher than I deserve, so believe me, this letter is not intended as a gripe about my grades. The true reason I am writing to you is to express my disappointment in your class, and perhaps offer some constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement. To be honest, I can't think of a single thing I learned from you since your freshman level course. And this is bad, since you were my major professor. My expectation was that in your class I would be exposed to and taught how to implement a wide variety of techniques and materials into my own work, and that I would emerge with a solid grasp on the how of making art. Instead, you gave practically no direction and less technical instruction, leaving us free to use any materials we desired, but lacking the knowledge of how the materials should best be implemented to get the desired effect. Even Picasso, known for breaking all the rules, learned how to paint the "right" way first. Also, although you did tell us more than once that we needed as much art exposure as we could get to expand our horizons and familiarize ourselves with what was currently going on in the art world, this was not reflected in your curriculum. Be honest, how many college students (many of us with full-time course schedules and jobs on the side) are going to do any research that is not acknowledged or graded? The correct answer: very few.
At this point, I would like to make some suggestions for improvement. To address my first concern, a series of "master classes" could be worked in throughout the semester. Perhaps you could dedicate a few hours every two weeks to teaching new techniques? This is done in music classes to great effect. You could personally demonstrate the use of all the wood-working tools, explain the difference between stain and varnish, instruct us on the different qualities of oak vs. poplar, share your knowledge on adhesives, abrasives, and fasteners as they relate to wood, give an demonstration of laminating and bent-wood techniques, etc. And when you exhaust your own expertise, you could bring in a professional welder or stone-mason to teach your students the ropes in their specific area of knowledge. I feel this would have enriched my education a thousand-fold. Regarding my second concern, exposure to art and artists, I would suggest a requirement to write a weekly one-page paper about an artist of interest. And if grading a bunch of papers is a put-off for you, you could make it a pass/fail based upon participation and ignore the content altogether. I would suggest, however, that you post your students' papers on a bulletin board for all to see and require the paper to include a picture of the artist's work. That way you can multiply your students' exposure to artists and art, as all would have access to the information gathered by their peers, and it would serve as quality control because none of your students would want to write an embarrassingly bad paper when all their friends were going to see it.
Sculpture Professor, if you can implement these changes into future courses, your students would benefit greatly, instead of graduating with a degree that means practically nothing to the non-art world, and less to your student. We both know that hours of studio time are absolutely necessary for an artist to find his or her way, and I applaud you on requiring your students to spend 2 hours outside of class time for every hour of "instructional" time working in the studio. Without basic knowledge of sculpture techniques, however, your students have no foundation, no starting point, on which to build their masterpiece. Many of your students created great work, but just think how much better we could have been, how much faster we could have progressed, if we had had the right metaphorical tools and an experienced hand to teach us how to use them. There is no limit to human ingenuity and accomplishment, except for time, and I feel that much of mine was wasted in your class.
In all sincerity,
The Cardboard Crafter

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Lost Art of Playing Pretend

As a child, one of my favorite games was to play 'Pretend.' When you play Pretend, you can be anything you want to be and do anything you want to do, and you don't need an online avatar to do it. I could be a pirate, an elf, a robot, a princess... I could even be the prince, no surgery required. Pretend gives you new eyes, you look at the world and see a veneer of magic overlaying the ho hum of everyday existence. Pretend was a land of hope and endless possibilities, knowing that the world could be anything imaginable. Many years and countless decisions later, I find my world view somewhat narrowed. Each choice I make is simultaneously one yes and a thousand no's. Each day new reality hits, new responsibility calls, and I have less and less time to be the daydreamer I once was. I lament the loss of my former self, of the carefree child I used to be. I watch my own children play and see them take on the mantle of the imaginary characters I once sought to be. I have lost the art of Pretend. I can no longer immerse myself in that world for hours and days because someone has to make lunch and call the gas company to see why the bill is so high. But I can do these things for my kids, so that they do not have to worry about their next meal, if they have clean clothes, or where they will sleep. I can buy my kids costumes instead of video games, toy swords and plenty of band-aids. Because let's face it, even brave knights get boo-boos sometimes. And I think that playing Pretend all those years served a purpose: I got to live my life a thousand different ways and visualize so many  paths untraveled. I know I wouldn't trade my life for that of the Lost Princess, the Unlovable Pirate, or even the Fearless Adventurer. How do I know this? I've been there, done that. And now it's somebody else's turn.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Paper or Plastic?

The question, "Paper or plastic?" is one that we don't often hear at the grocery store these days. Usually the choice is between plastic and reusable shopping bags, and if, like me, you always forget to bring your bags to the store, the choice is made for you. But given the option, I always choose paper. And, no, this isn't out of concern for the environment (although, let's be honest, its current state is a cause for concern), this is because brown paper holds so many possibilities. Brown paper can be parchment, clothing patterns, stencils, posters, you name it. Brown paper can be an integral part of your project, or it could be the protective surface on which you work. Brown paper can be a book cover, a scrapbook page, a hat, a map, or a bookmark. Wrap a box in brown paper, tie with twine, and add a little grease to the corners and you have a package delivered by the Pony Express, through rain, snow, sleet, and hail. I get as excited about brown paper as Michelangelo looking at a brand new slab of marble. (Not that I claim a LARP map or prop Wanted Poster to be the equal of the Pieta, but you know what I mean, there's genuine excitement there.) I love transforming a bit of nothing into something, and a paper grocery bag spurning its destiny rotting in a landfill to become something of use, adding texture to our daily lives, just thrills me. What can I say, I get excited easily.

Not So Sentimental

I received this awesome birthday card yesterday, one of these cards that lights up, sings, dances, and will even wash your dishes. Okay, so I may have made that last part up, but you get the idea. This is a top-of-the-line Hallmark, featuring Snoopy and friends decked out in park ranger hats sitting around a campfire, roasting marshmallows. An unobtrusive green circle boasts the words, "press here," and just like Alice, I cannot resist such simple instructions. To my delight, when button is pressed, the campfire lights up in multi-colored splendor and the card begins to play a simple guitar version of "Home on the Range," complete with birds chirping and crackling campfire sound. And you know what my first thought was? "Oh, what a lovely sentiment." Nope. "I love this song, it reminds me of watching Westerns in my childhood." Wrong. My very first thought was, "I wonder if I can take this card apart and use it to make a fireplace in my next doll house." My brain was racing with ideas on how to arrange the tiny lights, on how to make the switch look authentic, whether it should be concealed under wall paper or out in plain view. I wondered if the tiny wires would be long enough for me to hang the speaker above the mantle and disguise it as a clock or a piece of artwork. The thought never occurred to me that by tearing apart my card I would in some way be thumbing my nose at the sender or profaning its purpose. I know people who have boxes full of cards they have received over a lifetime, categorized by date and event, cross-referenced by sender. Not me. I am the girl who cut apart all her wedding cards and used them to decorate my scrapbook. I have no idea who sent the card fragments, only that they were warm wishes sent my way for a special day. But in so transforming these pieces, I have incorporated them into something more personal. Something of greater meaning, not just lines of text written by a professional to illicit a certain emotion by the reader. And I feel no shame at having destroyed another artist's work to create my own. The card was bought and paid for, if not by me. Art may be something meant for the purpose of sharing our humanity, but it is also part of culture, and a commodity meant to be bought and sold. There are very few pieces which transcend this purpose, and they are hanging in museums, not for sale for $7.99 at your local Rite-Aid. (I told you it was a good card.)

Found Objects and other Materials of the Starving Artist

 A cardboard box, some spare ribbon, a cocktail toothpick. Don't throw that out, I was saving it for a project! Upon entering my studio, one might conclude that I am a classic pack rat: the floor, my desk, and every other horizontal surface are piled high with bits of cardboard, buttons, scrapbook paper, cloth remnants and other such items that some might classify as "junk." I prefer to call these "art supplies." The difference being that most of these things have been saved for a specific project or purpose, and once I have gathered enough of said supplies, they will be crafted into something completely different (NOT stacked higher and higher to be kept for all eternity). I build miniatures, doll houses, costumes, and props. And, surprisingly, your average pirate costume may share quite a few of the same materials as a Victorian-inspired doll house. I take great pleasure in the search for my materials, spending more time than my husband would prefer digging through the remnant fabric at the craft store, the racks at Goodwill, and the glorious shelves at the local Dollar Tree, where anything that I desire can be purchased for a mere dollar. And if I can get it on clearance, I like it twice as much, taking it as a sign that the item was destined to end up in my possession. I especially like items that bring a duality to my work: retaining its identity from a "past life" while telling the story of something new. For example, a lampshade made from a toothpaste lid or a piece of artwork created from a postage stamp. These recognizable items evoke a memory of their former use that engages the observer on a personal level, while simultaneously telling a new story that can be carried forward. This is the power of the found object. And anything that can be saved from the garbage bin and re-purposed is fuel for the starving artist and one less thing gone to waste. One man's trash is another man's treasure.