Archive for November, 2006

Myrrh Christmas Garland and the Funereal Wise Man

One guess for which season this long piece of sparklies is for . . . The Myrrh Christmas Garland is a long (40 inches, a.k.a. three feet plus) strand of jewelry for the Christmas tree. On a twelve inch table top tree, it wraps two and a half times around. For display we like to arrange the red Myrrh Garland around a white tree. The red pops out like cranberries in the snow.

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There is some serious glimmering involved;  red faceted-glass drops, long sterling silver tubes, Czech firepolished glass and crimson-colored Swarovski crystals.  There are silver-plated toggle clasps on either end so several strands can be hooked together for a larger tree.
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Now here’s the big question -why did we name it the Myrrh Christmas Garland?  Absolutely elementary (or at least junior high).  Listen and learn, chickadees. 

Myrrh is one of the gifts brought to the manger scene.  I’ve always pictured the myrrh-toting fellow as a tall thin man with brooding eyes and a small pointed black beard.  His fingers are very long and he clutches far too tightly the gilded box he carries.  He is arthritic so the long trip is not without pain.  Inside the box he guards a valuable red brown incense used for funerals of the wealthy to mask the smell of the decaying corpse. 

The scent of myrrh would have stirred somber memories for the people of biblical times.  As one of the gifts at the nativity, it represented the idea that Christ was born in order to die. 

Red berries in the tree also often symbolizes the drops of Christ’s blood shed during the Crucifixion. 

Heavy duty symbolism.  It all ties into one long strand with which to adorn the Christmas tree . . . in the midst of life we are in death.

A little tidbit of not-so-trivial trivia about the treasures at

Tentative Tuscan Tiles – Part Two – The Finished Floor

We are. Prouder than peacocks. Tiling the floor was about as easy as swimming the English Channel – and it took longer. But . . . there’s an upside. We are fond FOND! of the result.
Would it look like this if we had a professional do it? Not a chance, because when I changed my mind halfway through I wouldn’t have had the nerve to tell the big burly tile-laying guy who just wants to go home and catch Monday night football that I wanted something different (and besides he would have doubled the price on me). But I have to see it all laid out before I know if I’m going to like it or not. Conceptualizing just doesn’t cut it.
Here goes. The amazing adventures of people formerly terrified of tiling floors.
Step 1: Lay the backerboard. It’s awkward. It’s heavy. It’ll keep the tiles from cracking. It’s worth it.

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Cut it to size with a carbide scorer. (it’s a sharp double-edged knife for cutting concrete thingagummies like this.)
Mortar up the floor. More gray goop. It’s called thinset. Think mud pies.

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Lay the backerboard down. Yes! So glad to ditch the thing. (Don’t drop it. Lay it down gently. Then celebrate.)
Screw it down.

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Step 2: Apply fiberglass tape over the seams. The books say this is optional for the floor but it would make it more stable. Stable is good, especially when you come from a family of giants.
We laid the tape.Then we mortared on top of it.
Step 3: Measure. Or not.
Everything we read said to measure and mark with a chalk line. We did this. I’m sure it’s a good idea, but it didn’t work. For us. What the tape measure said was square may have been square in an alternate reality, but the idea was for it to LOOK square.
We gave the tape measure a retirement party (another good excuse to make a cake) and then laid out the tiles by eye. YOU of course should measure. The books say so.
We arranged the tiles until we found something we liked. This is the fun part. Really. When necessary we cut the tiles to fit with a tile cutter
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When we found a design we liked we spaced them with these little white crosses called, you guessed it,”spacers”.
Actually I DIDN’T guess it. I had to check the bag in order to tell you what they’re called. (So much for my literature degree.)Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Step 4; Take the tiles up and mortar.
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Step 5: Lay the tiles back down and insert the the little white crosses again. Allow it to dry. Remove crosses and grout.Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Note the inspector.

Step 6: Wipe off excess. Wait 2 hours and wipe off gritty residue. We did this three times. The stuff is persistent.
Step 7: Promenade barefoot.
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So OK, it’s only the kitchen floor, but tiles can last thousands of years. It represents stability, solidity, foreverness. It’s an echo of the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans. It’s walking into Byzantium . . .
Proud. Happy. Happy and proud. We DID this! Hah! The other rooms are in for a rude awakening. There’s the laundry room, the dining room, the hall, the stairs, ooooh, lots of places yet to tile.

A Production

Georgia O’Keefe as an American Icon

Georgia O’Keefe has become a mythical figure; a solitary woman ensconced in the landscape of New Mexico.  As a young woman she “saw” another woman’s husband, eventually married him, and later still, experienced the emotional turmoil of his philandering.   Through her work it was obvious she identified with her femininity to an almost overwhelming degree.  But it was femininity with a core of iron.  Her features were strongly beautiful, an integral face, and she lived in a starkly lovely New Mexico with what amounted to an adoration of the land.

Last year, in September, I was lucky enough to be able to see a lot of her work in one place at the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. I left proud of being female and American.  She represents, and thus transcends, us all.   Emotionally fragile beneath a veneer of reserve,  tough as cactus spines when it mattered, content in her solitude . . . I understand all that.  I think many women do who’ve weathered marriages, moral collapse, and time, and emerge with a clearer of picture of themselves.  Georgia O’Keefe was all that we are, expanded it onto her canvas, and like the perceptual scale of her paintings, became bigger than life.

Tentative Tuscan Tiles: Part One – Leveling the Floor

In the previous blogs, we pretty much knew what we were doing. In this one, we’re GREEN! It’s our first time tiling a floor. We followed a myriad range of instructions from several sources. We studied. We perspired. We prayed.

Here it is . . . what we did, and even more importantly, what we learned.

PART ONE: Preparing the Floor – Floors are like relationships. If you don’t have a good foundation, sooner or later it’s going the get ugly.

Step One: Check to see if the floors are level. You could use one of those toys with the bubble in the middle (When I was a child, it was my favorite plaything. My mother was an architect. Levels were everywhere. They make useful impromptu swords and mixing spoons. They also make wonderful meditation devices- when made to sit in the corner for usingit as an impromptu sword or mixing spoon.)

OR you can put a marble on different parts of the floor and see if it rolls. Our marble rolled. Waltzed. Lindy-hopped. Jitterbugged. And finished off with two graceful spins in the next room.

Step Two: Take up the old flooring.
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting There is professional equipment for this, but if it’s a small area, a flat-headed screwdriver and hammer works just fine.

Step Three: We cleaned it as best we could andsince it’s a plywood floor, we had to lay down a metal mesh and nail it down.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThe metal mesh is big, awkward, hurts the hands, and is generally unpleasant.

Step 4: Primer. Just brushed on like watery paint. Easy.

Step 5: Floor Leveling Goop (a.k.a. LevelQuick, Self-leveling Underlayment) It’s a bag of gray dust. Mixed with water it becomes gray soup and is poured on the floor. It dried after 24 hours. Because our floors were sooooo screwy, we did it again. Primed again. Poured goop again. Another 24 hours. Sigh.

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This is a zen photo. Forget one hand clapping. What’s the sound of a motionless marble?

We’re hearing Verdi’s Triumphal March from Aida.

Next week . . . Part Two: The Finished Floor.

Brought to you by

Cave Art and the Modern Girl Scout

This weekend was spent making like a snake at Bluesprings Cavern Park in Indiana, slithering in and out of passageways sometimes knee and elbow deep in water, crawling commando style over over rubble rock, or crouched in a room with a low-hanging roof and hearing the surprisingly comforting drip drip of a leaky faucet that wasn’t a leaky faucet but instead water filtrating from the surface a hundred feet above us.  The Girl Scouts and attached adults such as myself ended up tired, dirty and wet, but highly exhilirated.  Changing into dry clothes we spent the night in a large hollow area above a subterranean waterfall, startled a bat hibernating just over our sleeping heads, and came out into the morning sun a little surprised to find the sky so far above us.

The experience has filled my head with a new appreciation for the cave art found all over the world.  (There was none at Bluesprings unless you count nature’s intricate carvings of it’s own natural materials).  Ten thousand years ago, people blew soot around their hands, hundreds of them, and left a highly personal mark.  Kilroy was here; the first Kilroy, long before anyone could write Kilroy, maybe not much longer after human beings learned to communicate by speech, calling each other by names.  Surely these early artists had names.  Naming appears early, often first in our mythologies, and from there a desire to leave that name, to leave a mark.

Sharks. Jets. Mary loves Joe.  This room was funded by a generous donation from Mr. and Mrs. William Smith.  I am Kilroy. I was here.

And here I am, ten thousand years later, blowing ash around my hand to leave a mark.  My name is Denise Thea.  My cave wall is cyberspace.

Decadent Decoupaged Cabinetry

Step 1 (optional) – We unscrewed the cabinet door from the frame – and the knobs from the cabinet door – just to make the decoupage easier. This isn’t necessary – just easier. Unless you’re allergic to screwdrivers.
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Step 2: Clean it, of course, and spray paint the whole thing. We used white, although the camera insists it’s ivory.

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Step 3: Choose what papers you want to use. We’re using black and white tissue papers (some with silent film pictures on it) and a favorite chocolate cake recipe. Yes, this is a dangerous thing to do if you like cake.

Decoupage is fabulous. You can decoupage ANYTHING even vaguely like paper; handmade papers, tissue papers (which gets translucent, very cool effect), scrapbook paper, magazine and newspaper clippings, photographs, your kids report cards, fall leaves, dried flowers (flat ones), love letters, coupons, subpoenas . . .

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Step 4: Spread the decoupage over the surface. Place a paper down and smooth it until the wrinkles are out. You should use a brayer (which is like a little rolling pin), but if you’re thorough and patient your fingers will work.
When all the paper is down, slather decoupage all over the top. Let it dry several hours. Do it again. And again. Ten times, in fact. This is the KITCHEN.  It gets rough in the kitchen and the more decoupage layers that goes on, the better it’s protected – but when you DO put lots of coats on, you’ll be amazed how nice it still looks ten years from now. (Yes, we know this from experience. Decoupaging forever!).
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting(The glare in the middle is from the camera’s flash. Grrr.)

Step 5: Spray or brush on a polyurethane sealant. Screw on the knobs. Done!

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Here it is in detail. More suggestive than intended (‘suggestive’ wasn’t intended at ALL) but you know what they say about chocolate.

Now we get to do 14 more cabinet doors.  We’re doing a chocolate cake theme. One fabulous recipe per cabinet door.


1/3 cup cocoa ,  1/2 cup boiling water,   2/3 cup shortening 1 3/4 cups sugar,  1 tsp. vanilla extract,  2 eggs2 1/4 cups cake flour, 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda, 1/2 tsp salt1/3 cup buttermilkHeat oven to 350. Grease and flour two 9-inch pans. In a small bowl, stir together cocoa and water until smotth; set aside. In a large mixer bowl, beat shortening, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add eggs; beat well. Stir together flour baking soda and salt; add to shortening mixture alternately with buttermilk. Blend in cocoa mixture; beat well.

Pour batter into pans. Bake 35 to 40 minutes. Cool 10 minutes. Remove pans to wire rack. Cool completely. Frost with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting – 6 Tbsp. butter or margarine, softened, 2 2/3 cups powdered sugar, 1/2 cup cocoa, 1/3 cup milk, 1 tsp vanilla extract. In a small bowl, beat butter. Add powdered sugar and cocoa alternately with milk; beat to spreading consistency (more milk will probably be needed). Blend in vanilla. Spread on cake.
Now here’s the clincher. Eat ONE piece. And good luck.

This creative quirk was brought to you by . . .

Piranesi’s Utopia OR The Grandfather of Surrealism Etches a Brave Old World

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (the Italians have such musical names!) labored his whole life to build a new Rome upon and among the stones of the old Rome.  The concept for the most part stayed on paper but . . .

Piranesi was an architectural artist, born near Venice in 1720 (nothing much seemed to be happening that year), but by the time he died in 1778 (the American Revolution was in full swing) he had helped usher in Neoclassicism.  That may sound a little dull but it meant he was a catalyst for a visionary new world.  His grand dreams pretty much fell on deaf ears, but in the wake of his attempt he left us with the most amazing etchings and a new way of thinking. 

Those etchings did, in effect, change the world, not so much how people lived but how people saw, felt, and even dreamed.  They were the stepping stones to new imaginative heights.  His prison staircases prefigured Escher’s staircases .  He served as an impetus for Surrealistic movement.  He presented strange perspectives of renewed ruins and passive “modern”  figures peopling the debris of the ancient Roman world.  His series on prisons, subterranean caverns with endless stairways and enormous arches, are the most famous, but my personal favorite is “The Ancient Intersection of Via Appea and Via Ardeatina”.  It looks as if the antiquities section of the world’s museums had been raided and the booty piled one on top the other to tower over the streets.  A grand history left to decay as tiny people gape and point and go about their daily lives.  In Piranesi’s time, anyone wandering around Italy would have seen isolated instances of this; the rocks of ancient civilization left to the vines and moss.  We have virtuously sterilized what we can in museums to protect it all, but Piranesi has embedded the romance of it in our consciousness (even if we’ve never laid eyes on his etchings before) because surrealism took his fantasies and sprouted them with new distorted dreams.   Marc Chagall, Man Ray, Max Ernest,  Yves Tanguy, Rene Magritte, and Salvador Dali, all owe a debt to Piranesi for opening the collective unconscious to the surreal.

People who spend their lives to fulfill a vision of a better world are fascinating.  Whether those strivings are actually reached isn’t as important as the fact that portions of humanity are capable of thinking far bigger than themselves.  And I’ve come to believe that the expense of human energy is never left unrewarded.  If, as so often happens, the world precludes the vision from becoming envisioned, the effort itself leaves resonances that change the world.  Sometimes even beyond that imagined in the initial dream.   

As it turned out, Piranesi’s dream to change the world’s architecture was far too small.  Instead he changed the world’s mind. 

The Imaginary Kitchen Fireplace


We’re going to show off an old project. This is the “fireplace” we tiled behind the stove. Mirrored diamond-shaped bits of glass in red and gold from an after Christmas sale are the flames. Bits of broken plates in shades of brown are the logs. The arch is made of broken plates in ivory and green. We grouted it all in a cinnamon brown and left it rough, liking the rustic look.
If you’ve never broken a plate on purpose, we highly recommend it. Gosh darn fun. Imagine it’s your mother-in-law or an ex-somebody-or-other (although my ex is great) or the neighbor next door who keeps complaining about you breaking plates . . .

Van Gogh’s Shoes

Everybody seems to know about Van Gogh’s ear.  Tragic. Bloody.  Slightly comic.  And a shame.

It’s not something he would have liked.  That story isn’t a true portrait of the man.  Deeply ill, struggling in the morass of a mind that refused at times to rein itself in, his act of disfigurement and the world’s continuous harping on it is as unfair a picture of him as if you, the reader, were caught on film, vomiting, the last time you were seriously ill.  It’s not fair.  You were sick.  That’s not YOU.

What images, after all, best describe a person.  Not THAT. No. But surely, a portrait.  Van Gogh had many: his own face, a favorite flower, the house where he lived, the room where he slept.   But of all the paintings that he brought so eagerly into the world, it’s the shoes that affect me the most.

Beautiful brown beleagured boots. “A Pair of Boots, 1887”, “A Pair of Shoes, 1885”and “Three Pairs of Shoes, 1886” . Painted as if they’d just been taken off and tossed into a corner.  Every crack in the leather earned from tramping through the streets or the fields.  His last painting of shoes and the only one at Arles was “Shoes, 1888”.  The painting rests now at The Met.  They probably weren’t his shoes  (most likely there were those of the peasant Patience Escalier) but they sit on the tiles of the yellow house at Arles where Van Gogh lived and first began struggling with the outer manifestations of his illness.  These homey cracked shoes are an especially poignant portrait of an artist who was, beneath it all, a good, kind man.

We bring our own associations to the painting we see.  No painting can ever be seen in isolation.  The artist can tweak and change that vision, but we can not escape from our humanity and we view each piece through our own lens distorted by our past. 

Those shoes . . . they resemble the ones my uncle wore.  He, too, was mentally ill.  He lived into his sixties, but he struggled his whole life with schizophrenia.  He, too, was a gentle, unworldly, intellectual person who would not have liked to be remembered for his moments of confusion, but instead, perhaps, for a picture I have of him on a boat as a young man, long before he had gotten sick. 

He and a buddy had gone on an extensive and hazardous sailing trip into the Caribbean.  They returned intact.  Someone on the shore had snapped a picture.  And there they stand, two young men who look as if they had gathered the world, held it, and released it again.

“If you love something, let it . . . ”

There are, after all, landscapes to be painted while wearing worn and weathered shoes.

And if living outside the boundaries of a photograph or a painting is a little uglier than the pictures may imply, at least there remain portraits unsullied by the pain and confusion that will come later . . .

Cackling Crackled Trim

This week we’re crackling trim and yes, the house is probably laughing at us. We paint old trim to make it look . . . old. Go figure.

STEP 1: Gold paint. We used two coats.
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This is an illustration of The Midas Effect – too much gold is a bad thing. So OK, it looks bearable in the daylight. At night it looks like it belongs in King Tut’s tomb – perfectly acceptable decorating if you’re a dead pharaoh, but most of us aren’t.

STEP 2: Brush on crackle goop, a.k.a. “Behr’s Crackle”. (Other companies make a similar product).
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Scowl of concentration not required for correct application of product.

STEP 3: Apply black paint THICKLY – it crackles better. Admittedly this is difficult when the surface is vertical. Be prepared for drips. Do not rebrush or apply a second coat. Crackle is very tempermental about that sort of treatment and will refuse to crackle.
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This looks awful so wear blinders until it’s dry.

Step 4. Finished!
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Old. Crackled. Fun. Yet in the week it took to do this, I’m sure I  heard a light cackling coming from this room just before dawn . . .
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The curtain tie is just a sample of all the pretty beaded curtain ties we have at

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