Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Personal Souvenirs

The clay class that I joined in town has drawn to a close. We have finished sculpting, then firing, glazing, then firing again. This weekend I picked up my pieces, which remarkably survived the threat of cracks and breaks in the preparation process.

The primary project was the previously mentioned clay chicken. She became known as the 50-pound chicken, based on the fact that both firing/glazing fees are calculated by weight and I must somehow carry this lady over the Atlantic. She is glazed in a lovely dolomite recipe created by the artist who runs to class, Christiane Zeghers. I look forward to demonstrating her silliness and that of each of her half-dozen chick-size egg cups.

At the end of class, with about half a session to fill, I decided to also create personal souvenirs from our stay in the form of ceramic magnets. Each subject I selected for its nostalgic appeal  to different eras of Belgian memories: the house in which I lived as a child, the chapel where my husband and I were married and the front door of our home these past few months. There is something very satisfying about both making your own souvenirs and also tailoring them to your emotional imagination.


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I stand firmly by the belief that a cliche tour of Italy — Rome – Florence – Venice — is a very worthy endeavor indeed. My gut, however, forces me to look for something a little different even within a predictable schedule. After a nearly lifelong tradition of the exceptional tour I cannot help but revel in unusual delights.

This is not to say that we uncovered some unknown gem nor came upon an unvisited secret corner of these mightily visited cities. But here and there we found unpredicted delights, sometimes in the most predictable locations.

In Rome it began at the Vatican Museum. Accidently on line for the opening hour (since I had the times wrong) we entered with the first few hundred guests. But as they — and they consisted mostly of locust-swarming group tours — made a beeline for the Sistine Chapel, we headed to the picture gallery. And there we stood before three massive Raphael masterpieces, with our backs to tapestries he designed, entirely alone. Several hours later we were body-to-body (and body-to-lunch!) with the hoards standing beneath Michelangelo’s ceiling, but for that brief moment, we had the masters to ourselves.

Still in Rome, on a certainly well-known and yet oddly unpracticed trip out of town, we took the train to Ostia Antica. There lies an entire forgotten city of ancient Rome. Blue Guide in hand, we worked our way through tall grass into and out of rooms and courtyards, we charted our way by frescoes, old wine bars that took little imagination to reanimate and lively mosaics that patterned the floors of baths and gyms and living rooms. Our reliance on what I think of as alternative tour books — the Blue Guide and a Wallpaper* City Guide — endowed us with informative as well as fun insight. After all, we may not have gone searching down the Cardo Maximus for the “striking” mosaic at the doorway to a 4th century home.

Rome even managed to surprise us when we took only a few steps off the well-trodden tourist lanes. With take-away pizza from a well-known spot on the tourist-saturated Palazzo Navona, a little ways away we found a slighty dingy square with several benches, a dramatically arguing couple and this lovely fellow watching us all from his window perch. Now, with calendars at every souvenir shop touting “Cats of Rome,” this is nothing extraordinary, but enjoying a postcard moment without a postcard shop in sight proved pleasant enough.

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I refuse to pay the full admission to the Rijksmuseum, which claims to be “open” but has a measly fraction of its collection actually on display. The shell of scaffolding and the lack of any apparent progress underneath that layer may not dissuade the line of tourists outside its side “entrance,” but I will not stand for it. Not for 14 euros, at any rate.

That left two museums on the Amsterdam to-do list: the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh Museum. The first I had never been to, the second I visit any time I happen to find myself in town. They are, of course, two very different places.

The Anne Frank House was a place to be. The simplicity of the arrangement — mostly empty rooms with excerpts from The Diary of Anne Frank included in a few displays. It required time and slow moving to recall the story of the families who hid there and a smart young girl with a diary. It made for a very personal experience — even if we were swamped by a tour group of French teenagers.

A visit to the Van Gogh Museum, on the other hand, cannot help but be a very public and often contact sport. First there is the game plan strategy: spotting the empty pocket of space into which I jump and then ride the current of shuffling feet. Then, there is the general hum about the place. While this is not the ideal way to enjoy art, there is something nice about the fact that the chatter is generally about the work itself or, at the very least, the artist. So, whereas it may sound like a loud cocktail lounge at times, there is a satisfaction in knowing that these two little old ladies here are talking about the color and those kids over there are pointing out the subject. Or, you could wear headphones to cancel the noise and add a soundtrack to the drama of those strokes.

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Crafting in Belgium

Dina Fragola Waffle Earrings on Etsy

An Etsy blog post on Belgium has been brought to my attention. (For dear readers now confused, Etsy is an online marketplace of individual crafters selling their wares from around the world.) Yes, for the rest of you — almost all of you and the world — Etsy is big in Belgium too.

The story, Shop Local: Belgium, the Land of Beer and Chocolate, spurts out the usual roll call of chocolate and beer with the numbers to illustrate. (Can you really get a feel for 21.4 pounds of chocolate? It is evidently the amount consumed in a year by the average Belgian?)  The guest writer (an Etsy crafter, of course) then makes her real point: sales.

Don’t worry, Belgium also offers you treats that aren’t bad for your figure or your health (though they may also be addictive): tasteful, delicious jewelry and accessories made by talented Belgian artists.

The ladies below have three things in common: they are born and live in Belgium, have a crush on chocolates and they create fruity, colorful, accessories that they sell on Etsy.

And the certainly delicious samples that she provides are indeed intriguing. Check out those waffle earrings. That might bring me back to wearing danglies again.

Although this Belgian source of fine crafting comes as no surprise. I pal about within an intimate circle of fine resident artisans here. And amongst their many talents is a knack for seemingly edible clay work, as evidenced after an afternoon session last month:

There are the chocolate toffee beads that beg to be eaten.

The thinly sliced prosciutto would fit perfectly in Alice’s hand, after a tipple from the “Drink Me” bottle.

(For more of this crafter’s beautiful productions, check out: Plum Pudding et Muffin Tops.)

As for myself, my handiwork did not turn out exactly scrumptious. (Although, I did unintentionally keep producing miniature likenesses of internal organs.) But most pride goes to these entirely off-topic (i.e., not edible-looking at all) pieces that . . . GLOW IN THE DARK!

. . . and when the lights go out:

Very impressive, I know.

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In My Bag

A recent New York Times blog presented a photographer’s experiment in nosing through the handbags of strangers. Although not a particularly original artistic enterprise, it makes for an interesting sociological curiosity and great fun to emulate.

In my homage to Francois Robert’s work (pictured above) I decided to examine whether any “Belgium-ness” became evident in the contents of my bag. No pre-photo editing was done; my shoulder satchel was taken as it hung.

This was the result.

There are taints of European life, but only just: receipts from Delhaize, GB/Carrefour, Lidl and De Kringwinkel (Spit); de Lijn bus card; the nearly vintage Swedish Nokia phone; German müsli bars; 10 euro cent coin.

Does the otherwise consistent content between here-and-there indicate that I am either overly European stateside or so worldly the continent beneath my feet cannot sway my bag-personality? More likely: I just change very little. As a creature of habit I will look rather similar — and almost always a little out of place — regardless or where I stand, satchel over my shoulder or contents spilled out.

What is in your bag?

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Clay Class

I am in a clay class where I am attempting to make a chicken-shaped soft-boiled egg serving bowl. No, it is not just you, that probably does not make sense to anyone else, either. But provided its head and tail do not fall off and its body remains uncracked during the kiln-firing process, perhaps I will invite you for breakfast one morning and you can see what I mean.

The class is run by a local artisan, Christiane Zeghers. Her own work is polished and beautiful and her latest creations take advantage of a technique she developed using a spectrum of rainbow colors. But far from pressured by such perfection, at each weekly session in her vintage atelier, the atmosphere is calm and easy. There are those making masterpieces and then there is me and my chicken. But everyone enjoys the experience, and my Flemish is even improving as I listen to the chatter during the (Belgian mandatory) coffee/tea break.

Belgian pottery comes with quite  pedigree, you might be surprised to discover. Sure the Dutch are known for the Delft blue tiles and the Italians for the talent that was imported to create them, but back in the middle ages, the English could not get enough of the mugs and pitchers from what today is Belgium.

Amongst its pottery of note, during the 15th century salt-glazed stoneware was renown in the potting town of Raeren, which had been producing pottery for at least two hundred years before. The famous blue-gray “Westerwald” jugs with their pitted surfaces — today much duplicated for eager tourists, such as myself — originated here.

Will my chicken live up to such historic proportions? Probably not. But I will still be able to say I was trained in the historic art of Belgian ceramics.

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Actually, it amounted to only four books:

Life in the Middle Ages, by Martyn Whittock

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell

In Search of the Dark Ages, by Michael Wood

The Discarded Image, by C.S. Lewis (Yes, as I said to the bookstore clerk, the Narnia guy.)

With many thanks for the recommendations, I was even able to help support the British Library by purchasing two of the titles at its lovely shop. And I shall enjoy gathering up the gems they offer.

Elsewhere in London, throughout the city’s magnificent museum collections — all free to enjoy — I gathered up a marvelous collection of priceless objects in images and descriptions, many of which I hope will find their way in some form onto the presently blank pages that lie before me to be filled.

These amber and glass beads were made for the neck of a lucky Viking lady.

“I am called ring,” the inscription says.

Look for the carefully chiseled image in the amethyst.

To be sure all your jewelry is straight on the go, this silver compact mirror slips into the smallest traveling bags.

On the road, you need to be especially careful of a bad exchange rate; with your portable scale and carrying case, money measurement is always accurate.

You would never show up at someone’s house for dinner without your own spoon, and this folding one really impresses hosts and fellow guests alike.

Travel means camping out in dark, unknown places, so keep this folding candlestick in your luggage and you can always see the contents of your al fresco meals.

Of course, at home something a little more showy is called for, such as this 3-foot gold candlestick with intricate if creepy carvings.

And it might be from the middle ages, or it might be from that super funky Scandinavian design shop in SoHo: the most awesome walrus tusk chess piece ever.

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