Friday, September 5, 2014

The Wild Side of Florida

Silver Springs State Park is not the first place that comes to mind when I think of Florida.  And yet, when I visited last month, it felt like the real Florida, Florida as it was before Disney and Universal re-shaped thousands of acres into theme parks, hotels, and all things entertainment.

I must confess that I did spend a day at Disney's Animal Kingdom, and it was fun (as it should have been for $90 a pop), full of thrilling roller coasters and animal displays that are guaranteed to give you a good view.

Female gibbon

Asian tiger

The following day, when, for the first time, we visited Silver Springs, I found it a quiet and relatively unspoiled slice of Florida, and much more appealing than Disney. On the 90 minute boat tour of the springs and the Silver River our knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide filled us in on many facets of the area, including geology, history, and wildlife.

It is one of the largest artesian springs in the world, with over half a billion gallons of water flowing each day. Wow! Although the water is clear, nitrate pollution from cattle operations has promoted significant growths of algae on the spring's bottom and in the Silver River, which is fed by the springs.  At the moment, one can only catch glimpses of the sparkling silver bottom which gave the springs and river their names. Florida State has recently taken back control of the springs from private interests and one can only hope that their plan to clean up the spring proves effective in protecting this National Natural Landmark.

In spite of the algae, the springs and river support a large population of alligators.

As well as turtles and birds.

Anhinga and turtle on the Silver River

Although Silver Springs may be best known as a location for filming movies - six Tarzan movies, Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Rebel Without a Cause are among the films made here - the area's history is long and rich. In the sixteenth century Spanish explorers found the springs inhabited by Timucuan indians, during the eighteenth century English raiders killed the Timucuan, and eventually Seminoles moved into the area.* According to displays in the small on-site museum, from the 1920s through the 1960s Seminoles produced crafts, including their distinctive patchwork pieces, to sell to visiting tourists.

Seminole patchwork

Note that on this item the piecing and attaching of rick rack were done by machine, a quick and cost-effective approach to production.  I too rely heavily on sewing machines as I can make things very quickly and am able to experiment on a lot of things in a small amount of time.  Still, I really like the look of handmade pieces and I enjoy the process and quiet of stitching by hand.  Over the course of the summer I finally completed all four pieced borders for my compass quilt.

I am now working on the corner stars.

The next step will be to assemble all the pieces.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

One of my favorite places in Austin is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, partly because it is beautiful, and partly because it helps to make me feel truly at home in Austin.  I had the good fortune to work at the center as it was moving from its original location on the eastern edges of the city to its current location. Having seen, and indeed helped with, the birth of the center as we know it, and seeing it now, as though it has always been there, makes me feel like I have grown up along with Austin and am part of it now too.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Johnson on several occasions and was impressed by her kindness and graciousness. Her words, though softly spoken, carried great weight. I think all of the volunteers worked even harder after meeting her. She has left a wonderful legacy with the Wildflower Center and other open spaces around Austin, the state of Texas, and around the country. She was truly a great lady.

Since opening on 43 acres at its current site in 1995, the Wildflower Center has grown to 279 acres, been renamed in honor of its avid founding patroness, and become a research unit of the University of Texas at Austin. Its original, distinctly Texas-styled buildings, demonstration gardens, and extensive rainwater collection system remain.  The center's message is clear throughout the property: native plants offer myriad beautiful, yet practical, options for our gardens.  Given severe droughts in Texas, California, and elsewhere, I suspect their audience may be listening a little bit more closely.

A good place to begin your visit is the top of the tower, which surrounds one of the rain barrels and affords views of the major areas of the center.

The seed silo with the tower in back

If you are looking for ideas for your own garden, be sure to visit the theme and homeowner inspiration gardens.

Theme gardens

New acreage has allowed inclusion of several additional facilities, such as an arboretum of Texas trees, hiking and running paths, large meadows dedicated to research, and a family garden and children's play area.

In the Arboretum

Entering the Luci and Ian Family Garden

When I visited, a mud pit in the children's play area was clearly a big draw for the ten and under crowd.  Hoses were available for clean-up afterwards, but it is advisable to have a set of clean clothes.

The gardens and plantings seemed particularly lush to me during my visits this July, due to plant choices that are well-suited to the site and to some recent well-timed rains.

Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea)

Purple coneflowers

Butterflies were plentiful in the butterfly garden.

Queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus) on Simpson's rosinweed (Silphium simpsonii) 

And throughout the center.

Queen butterfly on purple coneflower 

Speaking of butterflies, I have been butterflying the corner seams of the border for my compass quilt. With only four thicknesses of fabric at any part of the corner, quilting will be much easier.  I must give credit to Jan over at Bemused for reminding me of this little, but important, trick.  I am making steady progress on these borders and will have more photos in my next post.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Brattleboro and Wilmington, Vermont

Brattleboro, Vermont's oldest town, is tucked into the southeastern corner of the state, where the West River joins the the Connecticut River.  In the mid 1800s it was home to wool, paper and flour mills, along with a variety of other businesses. Today it is better known as a center for artists and artisans, with its sturdy brick downtown buildings now hosting galleries, coffee shops and sporting goods and specialty stores.

I visited early last month for the Strolling of the Heifers, an annual parade that supports local agriculture and sustainable living practices.  Cows are clearly the stars of the parade.

Strolling of the Heifers

All sorts of other participants, including goats, horses, llamas, donkeys and antique tractors, round out the show.

Prior to leaving Texas for this trip, I had cut several dozen squares for the border of my compass quilt so that I would have something to work on during those odd down moments that seem inevitable when traveling. It turned out to be far too few. Not only did I have more time than expected, I have become significantly faster at stitching, and quickly ran through my supply.

So, on a quest for fabric and wanting to see some of the countryside, I hopped on Route 9 west out of Brattleboro and drove to Wilmington, a tiny town in the Deerfield Valley of the Green Mountains.  It was a gorgeous day with a Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream carton kind of sky.

Barns along Route 9

Wilmington's economy has evolved from being based largely on agriculture to one based on recreation and tourism. As in Brattleboro, Wilmington's Main Street is now home to shops, restaurants and galleries, including Jim McGrath's gallery and studio.  Jim is an engaging man and a wonderful artist who eagerly welcomes visitors. Just visiting him and his gallery was enough to make the trip to Wilmington worthwhile.

Jim McGrath in his gallery

He captures in his paintings the essence and atmosphere of New England, from the shapes of the landscapes to the nuances of light and color.  I purchased these two pieces.

"The Shop in Back," Jim McGrath, 2013, 8" x 10", oil on masonite

"Autumn Reflections," Jim McGrath, 2013, 8" x10", oil on masonite

My other stop was at Norton House, a circa 1760 clapboard building crammed with fabric and quilting supplies.

My favorite part is the sale attic, reached via a set of narrow, creaky steps. With so many bolts squeezed together under the eaves, I felt as though I was rummaging around my grandparents' attic.

The sale attic at Norton House

I found plenty to work into the compass quilt, (plus a few others for good measure), and am now well over half finished with this border. I have also completed stitching all twenty five compass blocks together. Whew! As I have mentioned before, with sixteen pieces of fabric meeting at each corner, it was a challenge.  Next time I will strive to be more precise in the cutting and marking stage!

Compass quilt, center and two border sections

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Historic Deerfield

During my most recent trip to Massachusetts I visited Deerfield, a village first settled in 1669 by the English who were attracted to the rich alluvial soil found along the Deerfield and Connecticut Rivers. To this day the town retains its original plan, a number of 18th and 19th century homes on their original sites, and much of the land continues to be farmed. Historic Deerfield was founded in 1952 as a "living history museum," dedicated to preserving the cultural history of the area along with buildings, furniture and other decorative arts.  Similar to Colonial Williamsburg, though on a much smaller scale, the village and its houses, barns, and shops serve as the museum.  Most furnishings are displayed in situ, in the context of their original use, rather than as gallery pieces, thus giving a good idea of what life was like in the past.  Photography is not allowed indoors, except in the Flynt Center gallery, so I have a limited number of photos.

Sheldon House

Stebbins House

I, of course, was particularly interested in the textiles such as bed quilts and hangings, samplers, and clothing and accessories. Much of the workmanship on these pieces is exquisite. Note how the stars on this 19th century quilt are all of a consistent size with nice sharp points, and how the quilting is done with tiny, even stitches.  The Ohio Star block is one of my favorites.  I have used it in several of my quilts and will likely use it for the corner blocks of my compass quilt.  (More about that in my next post).

Cotton quilt, 1830-50

The Historic Deerfield collection includes some beautifully vibrant needlework pieces such as this idealized, bucolic scene, "Shepherdess in Landscape with Gentlman and Animals.

Pictorial needlework, c. 1780, silk, wool, linen

I have always admired this style - how can one not be cheered by the optimism displayed in such a scene?  I think it would be fun to work a piece in this genre, in a bright palette with wool that fills the entire canvas.  Quite a contrast to the cotton on linen piece that I completed in 2006.

Pear Orchard Farm,* cotton on linen

Mourning pictures were another popular needlework genre two hundred years ago and included a variety of symbolic elements, such as weeping willows and urns, which indicated death.  Eliza Ely of Saybrook, Connecticut, incorporated both of these into her 1807 piece and left space to add the name of a loved one upon his or her death.  She used silk and silver metallic thread for her stitchery.  The watercolor is thought to have been done by the framer and the ink faces and figures by a more experienced artist.

Mourning needlework

Here is another example of the weeping willow and urn symbols, this one on a gravestone in the Northfield, Massachusetts, cemetery.

Gravestone of Aaron Lyman, 1841

Like many cemeteries, the one in Northfield is a lovely place to walk. We often stop in cemeteries when we are rambling around unfamiliar places, and never fail to learn or see something interesting.

Northfield Cemetery

*Design by Kathy Barrick-Dieter

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Colors of Shelburne Falls

A couple of weeks ago, en route to New York from Greenfield, Massachusetts, Eva and I took a short detour off Route 2 to Shelburne Falls, a lovely town tucked away along the Deerfield River at the base of the Berkshire Mountains.

The town's most famous attraction is the Bridge of Flowers, originally built in 1908 by the Shelburne Falls & Colrain Street Railway to carry heavy freight to nearby mills and to serve as a passenger trolley route. These uses ended up being short-lived. As traffic shifted to trucks and automobiles, business declined significantly and led to the railway declaring bankruptcy in 1927. Instead of allowing the bridge to become a liability, the Shelburne Falls Women's Club raised money to turn it into a garden.  Since 1929 it has given pedestrians a flower-filled way to cross the river and now attracts thousands of visitors each year.

The Bridge of Flowers, Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts

One can stroll across the bridge or stop at one of the benches to enjoy views of the surrounding town and hills. The bridge is open, free of charge, from April through October.

View from the Bridge of Flowers

The non-profit Bridge of Flowers Committee carefully tends to the extensive plantings of trees, shrubs and flowers.  With thousands of specimens, there is sure to be something blooming whenever you visit.

Or you can view the bridge from the adjacent iron road bridge.  When we visited, the water was still enough to give nearly perfect reflections of the bridge's gentle arches and the town's colorful buildings.

The Bridge of Flowers

Downstream of the dam you can see glacially formed pot holes.

Pot Holes

Besides the bridge and the pot holes, Shelburne Falls is home to a number of artists.  We stopped in Ann Brauer's quilt studio on Bridge Street where I was delighted to meet Ann and to see her work up close.  On previous visits to the town I found her studio closed due to heavy damage from Hurricane Irene.  I'm so glad that she has now moved into a terrific new space where she can continue her work.  She has been making contemporary art quilts for over thirty years and turns strips of fabric into wonderful landscapes, some subtle, others vibrant, but all fascinating and full of movement.  Most of all, I am impressed with her use of color!

I bought this small piece for a small side table in my dining room.

Quilted placemat by Ann Brauer

When I got it home I discovered that the colors are a perfect match for the large painting of water (incidentally, purchased at Cape Ann, Massachusetts) that hangs on the dining room wall!  I guess I love those colors!

Painting by Gordon Goetemann, quilt by Ann Brauer

Here is my current work with color: a quilt top in progress, shamelessly copied from a 1930s quilt, Chinese Coins, in Roberta Horton's book "Scrap Quilts: The Art of Making Do."  Only four more strips of "coins" to attach.

Copy (in progress) of "Chinese Coins"

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Message on a Bridge: Make Art

Several weeks ago we were in Northfield, Massachusetts, to attend Sacred Concert at Northfield Mount Hermon School. As the girls' days were filled with with concert rehearsals and end-of-term school work, we were left on our own. We used the time to explore Northfield and the lovely Schell Bridge on the north end of town.

Northfield is a classic New England town, its wide main street lined with clapboard buildings, spired churches, and big trees. It is perhaps best known as the birthplace of the nineteenth century evangelist Dwight L. Moody. In addition to founding Northfield School for girls on a hill adjacent to his birthplace, and later the Mount Hermon School across the river in Gill, he attracted people from around the country and the world to Northfield.

One of these people was Francis Schell of New York who built an expansive chateau near the Northfield School. Schell found the town's most unusual physical feature  -- it straddles the Connecticut River, with Main Street on the east side and the train station on the west side -- highly inconvenient. So in 1903 he donated a bridge to make it easier to travel between the station and his east-side chateau. It is easy to see why the Schell Memorial Bridge has been called the most beautiful bridge on the Connecticut River.  Its lacework of steel, resting on wide-set stone piers, forms a single gentle arch across the water.

Schell Bridge from the west side
Up close, the arches and detail work combine to give it a a cathedral-like feel.

Schell Bridge from the west side

Schell Bridge detail

East end of Schell Bridge in morning light
Unfortunately, lack of funds prevented the town from properly maintaining the bridge, and by 1985 it had deteriorated so much that it was deemed unsafe for further use.  Solid steel plates were attached to both ends and the roads leading to it were abandoned to the encroachment of nature.

View of Schell Bridge through steel plate on west end
Beneath the west end of Schell Bridge
Like so many abandoned structures, the Schell Bridge has attracted graffiti artists, the large steel plates on each end offering a large easily accessible canvas.  I can't say that any of the graffiti is beautiful, nor can I pronounce on whether it is art itself, but I do appreciate the message scrawled across the east side:  MAKE ART.

Graffiti on east end of Schell Bridge
It has made me think about the nature of my own work in quilting and needlework.  For centuries most needlework was not thought of as art.  Embroidered clothing might have been considered stylish and decorative, but it was not art.  Likewise, quilts and other home furnishings were primarily utilitarian.  If nicely wrought, they might have been valued as decorative, but they were still not art. For example, these socks, which I recently completed, would be classed as useful and pretty, but not as art.

Stalking Socks from "Knitting Knee Highs", Cascade superwash Merino
During the last century "decorative arts" began receiving more attention. In an era when more and more items were mass-produced, the beauty and individuality of handwork could stand out.  Henry Francis DuPont, Electra Havemeyer Webb, and Ima Hogg all collected, in addition to traditional art such as paintings and sculpture, decorative arts such as furniture, housewares and textiles, including quilts.  All three eventually turned their homes into museums of decorative arts.* The 1971 Whitney exhibit "Abstract Design in American Quilts" is credited as the first to present quilts as legitimate art.  More recently, quilts made by residents of Gee's Bend, Alabama, have received notoriety as abstract art and been featured in exhibits nationwide.

I cannot claim that my quilts are works of art.  Certainly I would classify my earlier pieces as merely decorative.  But my work is evolving and the message on the Schell Bridge has helped me to clarify my aspirations:  Make Art!

* DuPont created Winterthur in Delaware, Webb created The Shelburne Museum in Vermont, and Hogg created Bayou Bend in Texas.