Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Awed by Artists, Torpedo Factory and Workhouse Arts Center

When I get an idea, it is an old-fashioned white light bulb. Let’s see, I could doodle a daisy and then fill in the petals. When a visual artist gets an idea, it is a colorful, exploding, prismatic, spiraling light bulb. Let’s see, my brush strokes could give the stylized daisy petals movement and by gluing bits of colored glass to the canvas … I know anyone can create art, but my thinking, so far anyway, has not escaped the box. Every year or so, I visit The Art Institute of Chicago or wander through a special art exhibit when I travel. But I have not ever been as immersed in art as I was a few weeks ago.

Normally, in whatever free time exists between appointments on my calendar, I live by to-do lists. I highlight to-do’s I’ve done, because a yellow glow on water bean seeds seems slightly more celebratory than a crossed-off water bean seeds. This system reminds me of my promises and enables me to progress toward my highest priorities, which I feel happy about. Fulfillment aside, however, it is a linear, plodding life.

Although I do not feel bored or trapped in this existence, I benefit from a change of scenery, especially one that takes me into an enclave of people committed to creating. Such was my recent trip to Alexandria, Virginia, to visit my sister, who is a ceramist. Between her and her husband’s home and her two studios, I was exposed to lots of original art by people who, at least for a time, did not live by to-do lists. Whether their creations appealed to my tastes or not, I was awed by the creativity of the artists. How do they think up this stuff?

In their minds’ eyes, how do they see a man’s face as a mess of angles? What inspires them to paint a canvas that looks like a multicolored alpaca fiber weaving? Or overlay tiger stripes on a flower? Or découpage an ostrich eye with newspaper clippings (very cool, by the way)? Or glue bright beads on each leaf they paint? Or make a teapot in the shape of a starfish? I cannot even imagine. My level of artistry is coloring within the lines of my coloring book and if I dare, coloring something purple that in nature is green.

Professional artists are not just imaginative; they have learned and practiced technique. Many of them are scientists—they have to know the chemistry of a glaze or how a kiln forms glass or the characteristics of certain media, consistency and temperature, for example. My sister and her ceramics students spend a fair amount of time trimming and testing to be sure lids fit snugly and spouts pour without dribbling. Functional art might look casual but it must be precise.

I wonder if following rules and disciplines of your medium frees you to choose new ways of doing representational art, of abstracting a subject, or of visually conveying a message. Disciplines lead to freedom in sports, spiritual pursuits, education, and most professions, so why not arts?

My art immersion happened as I wandered through two art centers where my sister has her studios, in the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria and in the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Virginia, just south of Alexandria. The actual U.S. Navy torpedo factory was renovated for one hundred sixty-five professional artists to exhibit their art. In the Workhouse, a former prison, sixty-five studio artists now work on site. Visitors can tour galleries in both places to watch artists at work and/or to buy unique pieces. I was filled with admiration for these painters, potters, glass workers, jewelry makers, photographers, sculptors.

I don’t have knowledge of these techniques or the commitment to pursue any at the moment, but I certainly came home thoroughly refreshed. Hey, maybe I could glue some beads on the leaves in my coloring book. 😊 And maybe my mom would even magnet it to her fridge!

As I oohed and aahed in awe in Workhouse gallery after gallery, I finally found some art that was about my speed—some students’ chalk drawings on the sidewalk.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia

Shhh. Walk slowly. Listen. Look on both sides of the trail. Look up. If you have something to say, whisper. You’re in a wildlife sanctuary.

My sister, who comes often to Huntley Meadows, showed me how to get the most fascination from our visit. First, understand this realm of nature is someone else’s home, and you’re only a guest. The parking lot was the last human domain we would see for a few hours. From there, we padded into a forest on a soft, black path of tiny stones or cinders, I’m not sure. High above us filtering sunlight were leafy green treetops; all around us were lacy, lush ferns. My sister pointed to a wavy indentation in the path’s pebbles and whispered, “Made by a snake?” Other than the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker, all was silence.

When the cinder trail led us to a wetland boardwalk, we slowed down even more to watch the water. Bubbles were clues that we might see fish, tadpoles, or frogs. Ripples usually meant a turtle swimming. Sometimes what seemed at first glance to be a small rock protruding from the water’s surface was actually a turtle’s nose. Our ambling pace enabled us to spot a tiny neon-green frog camouflaged against a reed of the same color. Remembering to look up rewarded us with views of green herons and majestic great blue herons in flight, a cute brown muskrat nibbling a reed, and green and yellow turtles sunning on logs. The only sounds were the tweeeeee of red-winged blackbirds swaying on cattails and the occasional bhwooosssh of a goose’s splash landing.

We did not see beavers but we did see their dams and a drawing of how these dens are designed. Beavers modify their environment to protect themselves from predators and provide food—nothing short of genius. They build the structures with underwater access. One eager beaver built its den right up over the boardwalk and part of a bench! My sister also noticed the telltale work of beavers in the pointed ends of logs in the water.

As we neared a lookout tower, a sweet fragrance wafted everywhere.  Honeysuckle was in bloom.

Photographers stationed themselves here and there on the boardwalk. Most had serious telephoto lenses wrapped in mottled green camouflage cloth. We asked one photographer what he hoped to photograph. He said, “I’m waiting for a warbler.”

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Apothecary Museum, Alexandria, Virginia

Before the existence of modern pharmaceutical companies, where did your doctor get medicines to relieve your pain? From the local apothecary, who had apprenticed to be able to diagnose ailments and dispense natural remedies. Using recipes, he would measure and weigh herbs, spices, gums, roots, barks, leaves, seeds, and buds, and then grind them in a mortar and pestle to produce liniments, potions, tinctures, elixirs, and pills. Hearing stories from our guide in Alexandria’s Apothecary Museum was fascinating. Some examples …

Early American apothecaries dispensed common pokeberry “medicine” to calm inflammation. The ink used on early American documents was not purchased at Staples; rather, it was made from fermented pokeberries. Although unicorns exist only in the imagination, unicorn root is a rhizome used for centuries to relieve stomach aches, colic, dysentery, and other ailments. Turpentine gum? You don’t only clean your paint brushes with it—at one time it was thought to get rid of parasites in the human body. Mandrake root myths abound, but colonial Americans used it to regulate the liver and bowels and to lessen jaundice.

The remedies themselves are interesting to learn about. Seeing the original storage drawers in the root department, gum department, bark department, and so forth, is impressive. The natural medicine recipe book, its page edges brown and crumbling, is huge. The apothecary also made perfumes; some bottles are on display. At the dawn of the 1800s, baby bottles were blown glass of various shapes; even the nipple was glass, though our guide conceded that dried cow udders were often attached to the bottle instead. Some shelves contain other blown glass bottles for storage; bottles with wide necks stored powders, while bottles with narrow necks stored liquids.

The history of this particular apothecary is interesting as well. It began in 1792, with Edward Stabler and continued with his brother-in-law’s descendants, the Leadbeaters, until 1933. That’s a pretty respectable run—141 years of retailing, wholesaling, and manufacturing.

A thirty-minute guided tour is your only option if you want to see this interesting piece of history. I heartily recommend one! Alexandria is less than ten miles from George Washington’s Mount Vernon, so you will hear stories of his family’s dealings with this apothecary. During the Civil War, the Union Army occupied Alexandria, so you will hear about the apothecary’s role in treating wounded soldiers. And you’ll get a slice of the history of medicine, from the four humors to germ theory, with a little controversy thrown in—laudanum, blue mass (mercury) pills, and belladonna stories.

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum
105–107 South Fairfax Street
Alexandria, Virginia 22314
Phone: 703.746.3852

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Leaning Spruce Lesson

Ruby magazine was kind enough to print my true lack-of-faith story in their May 2017 issue on pages 34 and 35. At the end of this post I've included a link to the whole issue so that you can enjoy this lovely magazine. Here's my article:
Leaning Spruce Lesson

I hear an elephant trumpet. A Cape buffalo bellows and grunts. A stampeding herd of rhinos thunders across a savanna. All these, plus wailing and whistling from my suburban living room.

Am I reading Out of Africa this afternoon? No. I am listening to unrelenting 30 mph winds with frequent 50 mph gusts. And this is Day Three of this gale. Bam! Sounds like shutters banging against the house—except this house has no shutters. Investigating the noise, I find a wooden rocking chair thumping back and forth on the porch. By now, roof shingles have probably blown off and landed only God knows where.

But my biggest worry is out the kitchen window. A blue spruce leans at a 30-degree angle, its stakes pulling further out of the ground with each fresh gust. Yellow ropes, once taut, sag and tremble in the wind. Considering how limp the ropes are, I am surprised the stakes even still touch the ground. They won’t for long, I am pretty sure.

I call my husband, who is out of town, and have to leave a voicemail. My voice quavers. Tears spring to my eyes. I feel so helpless. I pray for the Jesus whose mere command stills waves and wind to still these winds. Then I pray that God would somehow keep the spruce’s roots in the ground. I think if I could find help, I should, so I go on our subdivision’s homeowner listserv and ask for men with strong backs and a mallet to come pound the stakes back in. Then I run to the kitchen window to see if any knights in shining armor have arrived.

Silly me. Even a next-door neighbor could not possibly have read my plea, donned a jacket, grabbed a mallet, and gotten here in the few seconds it took me to plaster my hopeful face against the kitchen window. I search for my husband’s mallet, cannot find it, so go outside with a garden shovel. I pound at the stakes until I realize the shovel’s reverberations have caused painful swelling in my hand. Ouch! Defeated and once again helpless, I go back inside.

I keep close watch through the kitchen window in case someone comes. Oh—what if they drive up? I really should watch out the front street-view window, too. I know from previous requests on the listserv that neighbors here have lots of tools and expertise and desire to help, and I picture the scene when rescuers arrive. Ooh, what if the gal with the Hummer comes to tow the tree into an upright position again? Wouldn’t that be great?

I had other things I needed to do today, but now I can’t do them because I have this vigil to keep, because I will of course want to run outside to help when neighbors do come. And besides icing my swollen hand, there’s not much I can do while checking windows on two sides of the house. Plus, I need to keep an eye on that poor tree. In case I miss the sight, I wonder what sound the spruce will make when it falls.

Then it hits me. No, not the spruce. The spiritual application. This is exactly what I do when I have asked God for help with a relationship problem or life decision or someone’s salvation. I hover. I check every minute. I wring my hands. I think up all sorts of good ways He could answer my prayer. I feel sorry for myself. I worry that He’s not coming with help quickly enough so I try to do it myself. And since I am busy doing all that, I am not doing what God has called me to do. In many cases, I’m sure I have not even heard His Spirit’s still, small voice whisper what He wants me to do. In other cases, I know what to do, but I make excuses because I am too busy doing His job incompetently.

Oh, Lord, please forgive my unbelief, and my impatience with you that is actually demanding. Who am I to demand anything of you? I beg your forgiveness for my presumptuous disobedience and what it has cost you. Please, Holy Spirit, show me my limits and your desires for my time. And please help me to wait expectantly after acknowledging my helplessness before you. I am not strong enough to right a leaning spruce tree or even to pound stakes into the ground. Certainly changing complex circumstances and other people’s minds is beyond my abilities as well. But nothing is too difficult for you!

Now the sun has sunk below the horizon. No neighbors have sped over with mallets. Winds still howl, and the spruce lists lower than before. But I am at peace. I did what I could, and I prayed for God to take charge of orchestrating what only He can. And I wrote down this lesson from the Lord, which is what He placed on my heart to do this afternoon.


I invite you to read Ruby magazine's current issue at this link.