Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Favorite Books, 2014

 

 
 
It has been awhile since I have written a book-related post, yet all along of course I have been reading. In fact it is unthinkable for me to be without a book and has been since childhood! So here are ten books that were among the best I read during 2014:
 
And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass. Pantheon, 2014. One man's midlife quest to find out who his father is becomes a tangled tale of family secrets that succeeds tremendously at illuminating the inner lives of all its characters.
 
The Confessions of Frances Godwin by Robert Hellenga. Bloomsbury, 2014. Retired Latin teacher Frances Godwin gets herself into a heap of trouble. End result: a fictional"spiritual autobiography" unlike anything I have ever read before. Because of its Catholic themes and characters, it reminded me of the works of Jon Hassler.
 
The House at the End of Hope Street by Meena van Praag. Pamela Dorman Books, 2013. Very odd things happen in this enchanting literary genre-bender set in Cambridge, England. And yet every dispirited woman who takes refuge at Hope House somehow magically finds just exactly what she needs to get on with her life.
 
The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills. Penguin, 2014. As a portrait not only of the elusive Nelle Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, and her sister Alice, as well as their beloved hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, surely this down-to-earth memoir is a must-read for all Harper Lee fans.
 
Nora Webster by Colm Toibin. Scribner, 2014.  Plucky and extremely private Nora Webster finds widowhood in her small Irish town to be challenging. One turn-around comes when she begins to indulge in her love of music. Beautifully written.
 
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Viking, 2013.  A good old-fashioned novel about a spinster botanist named Alma Whittaker, her love life and ambitions. For me this was a truly quirky read, full of fascinating glimpses into history and the botanical sciences. I was glad to see Gilbert more than prove her mettle as a literary novelist.
 
Small Blessings by Martha Woodruff. St. Martin's Press, 2014. When Shakespeare professor Tom Putnam suddenly becomes a widower, he finds a soulmate in Rose, a gypsy of sorts and new manager of the college bookstore. Complications ensue, including the appearance of a small boy named Henry who may or may not be Tom's son from the one dalliance he allowed himself during the long martyrdom of his former marriage.
 
Some Luck by Jane Smiley. Knopf, 2014. Smiley's novel, the first in an intended series of three, introduces a  sprawling Iowan farm family, the Langdons. What an all-American family saga, chock full of fascinating stories, unusual points-of-view and colorful characters. I can hardly wait for the next installment.
 
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. Algonquin, 2014. What's not to love when a somewhat curmudgeonly widower/bookstore owner adopts a toddler named Maya who is left in his store and reaps the healing powers of love? I enjoyed every moment of this quirky tale, its Alice Island, Massachusetts setting and sometimes whimsical characters.
 
Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan. Ballantine, 2014. What little I knew of Robert Louis Stevenson before this novel, never mind his wife Fanny, but now I stand corrected and much entertained. This novel succeeds as a love story, an adventure story and top notch historical fiction.
 
For longer reviews of these titles, check out my Goodreads page. It has been a pleasure to look back on my year in books. Happy holidays and all the best in books and life come 2015!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

In the Aftermath of a Collage Marathon

During the month of October, I worked on collaging a group of table-topper chalices for the First UU Church of Houston's Centennial celebration auction (1904 - 2014). Our decorating committee made the chalice bowls out of papier mache and then they all came to my house. Thus it was chalice city! The chalices-in-progress seemed to take over both my art room and our dining room. Sometimes I had to do further papier mache work before hot-gluing the bowls to the cones. Next they were primed, and then came various stages of decoration including more paint, various papers, lace or cloth, not to mention more paint. One gal on the committee was able to come over one day, and she enjoyed collaging one of the chalices. If there had been more time, it would have been great to share the decorating with a few more brave souls. Finally, there were twenty candles with flames to create.
 
 If you read my most previous post, you know I was having vision problems, but I was able to work on the chalices with one eye shut. And now my vision is about 85% better! So I am hoping this problematic health episode will soon be over. The auction took place November 1st, and I am heaving a big sigh of relief that all this work is behind me. It was both fun and torture. I learned plenty about collaging on rounded surfaces.


This was the first chalice, the prototype of sorts.
 
 
 Here is one that is covered with scraps of cloth for a patchwork effect. I actually learned this technique decades ago as a children's librarian, when we used glue-soaked fabric to make pencil cans. This photo was taken using my new light tent I purchased to better photograph the chalices, and I think I am going to love working with it more in the future.
 

Here is another one done mostly with vintage-themed scrapbook papers.

 
 This one involved some lace I long ago inherited from my mother's sewing box. The flower is made of paper coated with acrylic gel, attached with a dainty button. The shape of the chalices are a little funky due to the papier mache methodology, but people have told me that adds to their charm and handmade look.
 
 
 And here is the final one bearing the logo for our fundraiser.
 
Now I am taking the month of November to relax and giving my eyes a rest. More than anything right now, I crave a feeling of elbow room in my days.  All I have been doing in the way of art since the chalice project ended is making small collage magnets to sell at holiday sales.



 
Lovely to be free again to create whatever art I might envision... I had been working larger, aiming for completing several canvases using fusion collage methods, but right now I feel rather disinterested in anything that makes a major mess. The fusion collages will have to wait awhile, as they do get messy. Yes, I am a neatnik. It feels so-o-o-o good to have put away all the supplies needed for the chalice project and have a neat art room again. I am looking into a few little art projects that I can do with my niece when she is hear at Christmastime. My resolve to take it easy this month feels firm. All through college, I threw pots and created silver jewelry to help pay my room and board. Somehow that turned me into a production mode artist. I tend to work in obsessive series. For the time being, I am beating that back with a stick. Onward through the fog!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Double Vision and Other Adentures in Art and Life

 
In my September 2014 post, I alluded to the fusion collage shown above, one I entered in a National Collage Society Show. I named it Eternal Women of the Flowers (Flores Aeternae Mulieres). It did not make the cut, but that's life in the art world. I have been in their annual juried show twice in five years. Not but a week or so after that rejection, one of my collages listed on the Saatchi Art website sold! Yes, the sale helped make up for not getting into the NCS show. And perhaps I will put the Eternal Women piece up for sale on Saatchi. It is done on a large wooden panel and would involve some pretty fancy packaging and shipping tasks, so I am still considering my options.
 
On the last day of September 2014, my life changed in an instant (and I hope, temporarily). I am the co-chair of art and decoration for the First UU Church of Houston's auction event coming up on November 1st. I looked up from the papier mache object I was working on early that morning and my vision went cattywampus. I was seeing out of focus. In fact, with both eyes open I was seeing double. If I closed my right eye, seeing out of the left eye was tolerable. To make a long story short, I still need an MRI. I have been seen my 3 eye doctors and one neurologist. This kind of thing could have been due to a mini-stroke, but the neurologist pretty much ruled that out. We will know much more after the MRI. Possibly I have thyroid eye disease. We shall see. Yes, at least I am still seeing! It could have been much worse.
 
I am walking and riding my bike more. I am driving less. My husband steps in as needed, though this is a busy time of the year for him. I am living in gratitude for what I can see. I can still read and make art. Life has slowed down a little and that feels like a good thing. There has been some improvement in my eyes since this started. The band of space where my vision is doubled has decreased in size. I am travelling to Charleston and Myrtle Beach, SC for a girlfriend get-together later this month. I had been planning to rent a car, but now a friend has stepped in to do the driving. So that is my news. Call me Pollyanna, but all this is not as bad as it sounds. All in all, I am in good health. There is a hidden blessing in most tragedies. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Thanking the universe for blessings yet to come! May it be so....
 
Eternal Women of the Flowers fusion collage on textured wood panel  by Keddy Ann Outlaw, 2014
 
 
 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

My Recent Adventures with Fusion Collage

 I took a class in Fusion Collage taught by Kelly Alison at the Art League Houston (ALH) this summer, and since then have made these small pieces using the new method. The first couple of pieces made in class were not worth saving. All the pieces shown here were more or less experiments done at home in the weeks following the class. At first, I found it a little frustrating to work with. I was getting gloss medium all over my hands and it wouldn't wash off. The answer to that dilemma was latex gloves. And the more I played with the fusion techniques, I was hooked.

 What is fusion collage? I will briefly outline the steps involved in this method of collage done without liquid adhesives, as pioneered by artist Jonathan Talbot. See also his book, Collage: A New Approach (Talbot, 2001).

 The first step in making a fusion collage involves the usual cutting out of pieces you would like to incorporate into your collage. You pre-coat both sides of these pieces or pages with a glossy acrylic gel medium. After they have dried and you have figured out where you want them to go on your canvas, wood panel or other substrata, you are ready to start the fusion process. You also give the surface a good coat of gloss medium. Then you plug in a tacking iron. When it is hot, it is time to start "ironing" your pieces down into place. You may have to do this in stages, depending how complicated your design is. But wait! Before you start ironing, you need a silicone sheet to place face down on the substrata as a barrier between the heat of the iron and the glossy pieces. (You can buy the silicone sheets from Talbot Arts.) As you run the iron over the silicone sheet, it melds the pieces to the substrata. No more air bubbles, a frequent problem in laying papers down with wet gloss. After the composition is done, you are ready to varnish it as desired.

 

I created the largest collage I have ever made using this method. Done on a 16 x 20" wood panel, it took weeks and was very rewarding. I gave it an impasto paint treatment on the border and several coats of satin varnish. Since I am submitting it to a National Collage Society juried show, I can not share that image here right now.

Fusion collage also works with fabric, but I haven't tried that yet. I am working on a large canvas now, another Victorian era piece. Fusion collage can be time consuming in some ways, with all the prep work necessary beforehand, but in other ways, it seems to save time in that everything gets adhered more easily. It seems like magic to me, and I am glad to have added this method to my bag of collage tricks.

4 Fusion collages
by Keddy Ann Outlaw
Bunnies (wood panel)
Para La Vida (canvas)
Vintage Ladies (wood panel)
Lady with Fan (canvas)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

How Larry McMurtry Led Me to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

I always read the NY Times Book Review first after the Sunday paper arrives. On July 10th, 2014, I was thrilled to find a brief interview with Larry McMurtry. When asked who his favorite novelist of all time was, McMurtry said that would be Tolstoy, and that he considered Anna Karenina to be the finest novel ever written. That did it. I knew it was long past time to read Anna Karenina. I am a big Larry McMurtry fan, especially of his earlier novels. Leaving Cheyenne (1963) is my all-time favorite, one I chose as a pick for the West University Library book club in its early years. I also love the Houston series, including Moving On (1970), All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers (1972) and Terms of Endearment (1975). Funny, I read all those novels when I was still living in upstate NY, never ever thinking that one day I'd be living and working in Houston, very near the Rice Village neighborhood McMurtry so often wrote about. I have also reviewed some of his novels for Library Journal.

So if Larry McMurtry thought that well of Anna Karenina, I wanted to read it ASAP. I went straight to Barnes and Noble's and bought a copy (Penguin edition translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 2000). I wondered if I would see any similarities between the two writers. May I also add that a few days later, after I started the Tolstoy novel, I also read somewhere that William Faulkner also thought Anna Karenina was the best novel ever written...

Reading Anna Karenina took me nine days! But what to say here that everybody doesn't already know? I can only give my impressions. The psychological depth of Tolstoy's characters most impressed me, especially Levin and Anna. Their interior worlds are often unaligned with what is going one around them, thus Tolstoy deftly shares the fa├žade, the persona, shown to others in polite society as well as what truly lies beneath. The novel gives quite a panoramic view of Russian society. Well, maybe mostly of the aristocrats, but because of Levin's ties to farming, we also see how the peasants live.

Funny to me that I also thought of Jane Austen as I read the first few sections of the book, largely because of the themes of courtship, love and marriage. And the novel also made me think of Woody Allen's movies because the characters were often neurotic and full of angst. Critics have long pointed to Tolstoy as one of the first authors to present streams of consciousness, well before James Joyce or Virginia Woolf.

As for Anna Karenina, when we first meet her, we see that she is kind, caring,intelligent, beautiful and loving. She adores her son. But her scandalous affair with Count Vronsky drives her towards madness. She loses her son. If only the divorce laws and social codes of the times had not been so tough, maybe Anna could have stayed sane. And so, this is for me not only a tragic love story, but also a historical portrait of women's rights during Victorian times (they had few). Most of all, Anna Karenina is a family drama. Sometimes I had a little trouble keeping the all those Russian characters straight, especially since most of them had multiple names and/or nicknames.

The politics of the novel bored me. Sorry, but that's just my own modus operandi. The complex family ties and delicate maneuvers between family members are what intrigued me. I read Anna Karenina to live and breathe the lives these characters led. Also, I value having read this doorstopper novel just for its Russian gestalt, a certain broody, moody, philosophical, existential and minor key tendency I've always attributed to the Russian people, substantiated here by Tolstoy, vodka and all. (Now I very much look forward to reading some shorter novels set in our times, when women have more rights.) Yes, there will always be many novels portraying love gone wrong, for that is an eternally fascinating plotline. From now on, Tolstoy's novel will always be one I measure other novels to.
 
And in closing, I must say I did see a similarity between Tolstoy and McMurtry, largely in both author's portrayals of women. Both these male writers have an uncanny sensitivity towards women. How do they know us so well? That will always be a mystery to me. I once told a friend how highly I though of McMurtry's female characterizations. He was floored because he once had quite an argument with his ex-wife about that very same thing. My friend thought McMurtry did well with women. His wife did not. In any case, I am glad to have ferreted out what is perhaps some of Tolstoy's influence on McMurtry. I believe I have read just about every book McMurtry ever wrote during these last 40-plus years. Now I'm wondering if I should dip into more Tolstoy. Perhaps War and Peace? But not right away! "So many books and so little time!" (... so said,of all people -- Frank Zappa.)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Read Any Good Books Lately? Here Are a Few I Enjoyed....

 
The Blessings (Grand Central, 2014) by Elise Juska is beautifully written novel about a sprawling family from Philly. The tone here is delicate, emotionally rich and somewhat elegiac, reminding me of Alice McDermott. The Blessings are a closeknit Catholic family and those that marry in must get with the program. All holidays and family anniversaries will call for a gathering of the clan. In the first chapter we meet Abby, the youngest daughter, a college freshman who is home for Christmas. She has pined for her family. Yet being home them makes Abby realizes how much college has changed her. She suffers "an unsolvable ache. When she is away, she'll miss her family; when she's with her family, she'll miss herself."

Every chapter drops readers deeply into one or another family member's life: a young widow whose husband dies young, a troubled teen, a pre-med student. I had to get used to that ever-changing character rhythm, but the end result is a richly nuanced family portrait. Abby's older brother John dies when his two children are young. This tragedy marks every family member in a different way. The Blessings will gather together every year on the anniversary of his death. In times of sickness and death, the family shows up with casseroles, babies to rock and hands to hold. Maybe that sounds like a Hallmark movie, but this novel is much more richly complicated than any tv movie could ever be. I did at times feel a shade too sad reading about various Blessing family struggles, no matter how soulful some of the resulting epiphanies were. Then the last chapter brought me full circle. I felt uplifted, and that I could say goodbye to the Blessings with a full heart, trusting they would thrive and persevere. In fact, I would love to red another novel about the Blessings! May it be so....     
 
  
Life behind the scenes of a rather staid Manhattan literary agency emerges colorfully in My Salinger Year (Knopf, 2014), well-told by English major Joanna Rakoff. Her starry-eyed innocence about her employment at the agency does not last long. Her boss is a dragon from hell, and although this is the 90s, there are no computers in sight. One of her boss's writers is none other than J. D. Salinger, "Jerry", whose fan mail and phone calls Joanna often fields. Eventually she gets to meet the man, and even further on into the memoir, she finally reads all his books while her no-good boyfriend has gone off to a wedding without her. She is amazed at how much she loves his books and becomes a die-hard fan. I so enjoyed this literary bildungsroman; it really hit the spot. One read-alike comes to mind: Summer at Tiffany (Morrow, 2010) by Marjorie Hart. The last memoir I read and enjoyed that had anything to do with Salinger was At Home in the World (Picador, 1998) by Joyce Maynard.

 
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin, 2014), the eighth novel by Gabrielle Zevin seems to be on everyone's 2014 must-read list. What's not to love when a somewhat curmudgeonly widower/bookstore owner adopts a toddler named Maya who is left in his store and subsequently reaps the healing powers of love? I enjoyed every moment of this quirky tale, its Alice Island, Massachusetts setting and sometimes whimsical characters. The bookstore ambiance is irresistible and short book reviews/book talks (actually letters to his daughter) written by A. J. at the start of every chapter enhance the verisimilitude. Truly a must read novel for bookaholics.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Learning to Paint is Torture....

I took a 4 week Acrylic Painting class at Leisure Learning last month. We painted some color charts and then by the end of the second week, it was time to start on our 16 x 20" canvas (a bigger size than I might have expected). I spent way too many hours fooling with mine. I learned a lot, but am so very tired of the whole thing. I am walking around feeling quite tortured because I spent so many hours on it and it is still not finished, but I have learned a few things.
 
What exactly have I learned?
 
1. A little about mixing colors, especially that often the complimentary color is the one you should use to make new shades of a color. Example: add a little blue to orange to deepen it.
 
2. Pick the right brush for the task at hand. Unfortunately I suckered myself into a design that required the teeniest, tiniest brush I could find. I liked getting a blob of paint onto the end of that brush and then kind of pulling it along to make wandering lines to outline my shapes, but I also had to get acquainted with bigger brushes. I learned I really don't know much about the proper use of brushes yet....
 
3. Acrylic paints dry quickly. So at first, I tackled that problem by using a retarder medium, but when I learned there was something called a wet palette, I tried that. Basically, it is a tray with a sponge soaked in water over which you lay a special sheet of palette paper. Then you throw some paints on there and they stay wet. Unfortunately, they also tend to get a little thin, so I am still finding my way with that technique.
 
4. The quality of your paint matters. I already had a hodgepodge collection of different brand acrylics. If I am going to keep painting, I will buy some top quality paints. The cheaper ones are not as thick or richly pigmented.
 
5. Paint your background first. At first I laid down the wrong shade of blue, which meant I had a lot of corrections to make later on.
 
6. Think carefully about your design. Sketch it out or find a simple photo to start from. I should have picked an easier design for my first go-round. 
 
I really don't know what compels me to share the painting here (see below) because I do not consider it finished (especially the orange shapes; they still need more definition). But I think it is time to give it a rest and move on to some other projects. My intent was/is to learn more about how to combine paint with collage. Maybe in time that will happen. I never took painting in college (SUNY Plattsburgh), probably because I felt I couldn't afford the paint supplies, but also because my head was turned by ceramics and jewelry-making, not that I've continued to do either of those..... I have used a little paint in the backgrounds of my collages and painted plenty of walls and furniture, including one Art Chair for charity.
 
I may ultimately throw this painting away. Painting on canvas for the first time taught me a lot and I would be satisfied just keeping a photo of the thing. It started with a photograph of a cracked tile floor in a semi-demolished building I took years ago in downtown Houston and evolved into a strange design that is vaguely topographic.
 
 
A section from Peter Heller's novel, The Painter (Knopf, 2014) comes to mind:
 
Nobody, not even artists, understand art. What speed has to do with it. How much work it takes, year after year, building the skills, the trust in the process, more work than probably any Olympic athlete ever puts in because it is twenty-four hours a day, even in dreams, and then when the skills and the trust are in place, the best work usually takes the least effort. Usually. It comes fast, it comes without thought, it comes like a horse running you over at night. But. Even if people understand this, they don't understand that sometimes it is not like that at all.

To see my thoughts about The Painter, click on over to my Goodreads review. If you want to walk in the shoes of an extremely tortured artist, that is the book for you!

PS (07-14-2014) I did end up tearing this canvas off the frame... Since then, I have reapplied myself to collage and felt a huge measure of relief. One of my collages got into the Sixth Annual Juried Exhibition at Archway Gallery and two others are currently on view at the annual Students and Teacher's Show at the Jung Center. I am also taking a collage class at the Art League with artist Kelly Alison. Learning some new techniques! Once an art student, always an art student......