Monday, September 28, 2009

Georgia O'Keeffe's Mountain

I enjoyed taking a look at a young college woman's new blog, A Bit of Rain, after she left a comment about one of my posts. When I saw that she was a fan of Georgia O'Keeffe, it made me remember my joy of discovering that artist decades ago. It looks like the Bit of Rain blogger was introduced to the artist via the new Lifetime biopic, "Georgia O'Keeffe" starring Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons.

In an earlier post, I mentioned my Elderhostel trip to New Mexico, a six day course fashioned on all things O'Keeffe. I recently found my notes from that trip in 2006, page after page of tidbits and trivia about the artist, her art and her life and having also watched the Lifetime movie, I fell back into my fascination with her.

O'Keeffe particularly loved one flat-topped mesa, Cerro Pedernal. She called it "my private mountain", which she could see from the front yard of her home at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico. It is featured in 28 of her paintings. She paired it with flowers and with bones. She painted it up close and from faraway, under blue skies and moonlight. During my six day stay at Ghost Ranch, I too grew very fond of the Pedernal, which you could not help but recognize from her paintings. It is also the place where O'Keeffe's ashes were dispersed.

Another interesting aspect of Cerro Pedernal is its connection to the Navajo myth of Changing Woman, who also holds a place of power for the Apache. Changing Woman represents the turnings of the wheel of time, as well as eternal timelessness. She is the beneficent female deity of all the seasons of life: birth, growth, life, aging, death and rebirth. Symbolizing balance, beauty and harmony, Changing Woman came to life on Cerro Pedernal, a child born of sky and mountain. I wonder if O'Keeffe felt a connection to Changing Woman's timeless wisdom.

In future posts I will explore further topics related to O'Keeffe. I'd like to go back to Ghost Ranch in the fall, when I'm told the cottonwoods turn yellow as liquid butter. But for this year's fall field trips, my husband and I are bound for the State Fair in Dallas and then on to Missouri to visit family there. I am really excited about finally visiting the State Fair. I've lived in the state of Texas more than half of my life now, so clearly it was time to pay my respects to Big Tex, the super tall iconic State Fair Cowboy, he the wearer of a 75 gallon hat and size 70 boots!

photo: KAO at Ghost Ranch. Cerro Pedernal in the background, Spring 2006.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Cocobolo, Purpleheart & Other Exotic Woods

After a visit to Clark's Hardwood Lumber Company here in Houston, during which I scribbled down names of woods I'd never heard of before, I just had to do some research on their exotic origins and qualities. Their names were pure poetry: cocobolo, purpleheart, bubinga, zebrawood and lignum vitae.

The Cocobolo wood really caught my eye. It looked like slabs of marble halvah, having broad contrasting bands of dark brown and cream. Rare and expensive, it is used for making such things as musical instruments and cue sticks.

Purpleheart (species Peltogyne), also known as violetwood, has to be seen to be believed. It looks as if it has been soaked in a vat of purple tint or stain, but indeed the color is natural. There are some twenty-odd species of Peltogyne, grown in tropical Central and South America. It is very dense, easily takes on a high natural polish, and is well suited for inlay work. I found myself wanting to buy a small piece of it but decided to wait until I have some idea of what I might do with it.

Bubinga, bubinga - now there's a word that makes me smile. Luthiers use this African wood to make harps, and it is also used for making drums and archery bows. Applied as veneer, it can have a wild swirly pattern something like curly maple, but with colors in the orange or red-brown spectrum.

As you might expect from its name, Zebrawood, also known as zebrano, has dark stripes on a lighter background. It comes from Central Africa, and much like the endangered animals it is named for, is considered a threatened species. Its use is mainly for fine inlay or marquetry woodwork involving such items as guitars and handgun stocks. In order to manifest the unique stripes, it is usually quarter-sawn.

Lignum Vitae, from the Latin for "wood of life", also known as greenheart or palo santo, is said to be the absolute hardest wood; it even sinks in water. It is used to make cricket balls, croquet mallets and mortars and pestles, among other things. I was interested to see that it is considered an ironwood. Back in the 1970s, I made a mirror frame from an ironwood slab I harvested in upstate New York, but now I realize that ironwood is not one wood but a group of very dense woods. Another threatened species, lignum vitae has seen a fall in demand due to alternate use of alloys, polymers and various composite materials.

Well I hope reading this has not been too much like scanning a child's school report. I get excited by Mother Nature's beautiful raw materials, and never knew I had such access to them so close by. My cabinetmaker husband has a workshop full of less exotic woods such as oak and pine. We have enough scraps from leftover projects to build a small barn, so I don't think we'll be buying any great amount of exotic woods soon, but visiting Clark's Lumber Company is a fun, hands-on field trip I highly recommend for artists, craftsmen and all other curiosity-seekers.

photo: Ironwood and Crochet Mirror by KAO

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


I tried to find a way to place these book covers as a group on the sidebar, but had no luck. So I decided to write a short post about my days of being published. At one time or another I contributed to the books above. Each time, it was a thrill. There was a period of about ten years where I spent most of my leisure time pursuing creative writing. I attended writing classes, gathered in writing groups and went to conferences. It was a great deal of fun and hard work. I confess I even had the novel bug for awhile and thus am the owner of two unpublished novel manuscripts. And I have a stack of moldering periodicals my poems and stories appeared in.

I might try writing a novel again some day. But in this age of electronic multitasking, I wonder if I have the attention span or the chutzpah. Blogging and book reviewing currently satisfy my writing desires. One thing I learned I did not much like about being a writer was the need to promote and market oneself. Although there were times I enjoyed reading my work in public, it became less of a thrill as time went on. If you're an introvert, as many writers are, performing your work can be a real stretch. And often the compensation is not commensurate with time spent. For a few years, I did get handsome royalty checks from Papier Mache Press (thank you, Sandra Martz, a wonderful editor and mother hen to hundreds of women writers). Who am I kidding, if someone had paid me big bucks to croak out my poems and stories, I would have found a way to comply! But the impetus to compete and network towards increased fame was lacking.

I also felt that I was spending too much time writing instead of living. In that period of time known as midlife, I wanted something else. Taking a hiatus from creative writing activities felt right. A few years passed and I went back to writing book reviews for Library Journal. Then I was required to learn how to blog at work (thank you, Harris County Public Library). This "cybertunity" became my new thrill. My first post on this blog went up on September 22, 2007, labeled "Grateful". What a democratic art form, so free and easy. My gratefulness continues today. Thank you, readers and thanks also to the many powers that be which result in a thriving Internet.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

South of Broad by Pat Conroy

The Prince of Tides (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986) by Pat Conroy is one of those books I remember as a real litmus test. People became soul mates on the basis of loving that book. People were just mad for it. The World According to Garp (Dutton, 1978) by John Irving was another title I felt had a similar intensity and effect. Well, Pat Conroy is back with a new novel, South of Broad (Nan A. Talese, 2009), which I couldn't wait to read. The Prince of Tides and his memoir, My Losing Season (Nan A. Talese, 2002) are my two absolute favorites by him. The memoir really helped me to know Conroy as a young man.

In South of Broad, the narrator named Leo King is also known as Toad because he was "born ugly in a city that prizes beauty." His self-effacing, understated, good-hearted manner reminded me very much of the Pat Conroy I met in the memoir. Two bandied about phrases about the new novel I've heard or read most often are these: that the book is a "love letter to Charleston" and that it is full of "saints and sinners." Both are true. The book is also a little too full of horrible psychopaths, abusers, madwomen and nymphomaniacs, not to mention way over the top plot developments. But he is Pat Conroy, so I forgive him for it. I'll put up with those flaws anytime to fall under his baroque, multi-sensory Southern spell.

As always, Conroy makes the warm, sweet tidal waters of South Carolina come alive. Conroy's Charlestonians are connoisseurs of tides. Leo, who is senior in high school, takes some new friends swimming at "the exact hour that the moon had issued recall papers to all the waters of the marsh." He is also a paper boy, and readers are introduced to the social strata of Charleston via Leo's daily bicycle route tours at dawn. Leo is "a native son, peacock proud of a town so pretty it makes your eyes ache...). Conroy paints with words, and I quote him to show how his way with sentences truly dazzles me.

Leo is one of those characters we have to care about. Leo lost his only brother to suicide and then had a period of nervous breakdowns. He knows his mother (who was once a nun and is now the principal of Leo's high school) loved the brother more, and that he is ugly in comparison to that golden boy everyone loved. Leo finally makes some good friends of both sexes during his senior year (1969), and basically the book concentrates on that one year, interlaced with flash forwards to twenty years hence. These kids become friends for life. Some of them are on the football team, where racial integration has finally taken place. Some of them are orphans, others are blue bloods and socialites; one of them is gay, and some are African American; this variety allows for plenty of high contrast and drama.

One of my favorite characters is Leo's father, a very loving man. Late one night his father takes him down to the Battery, a place where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet and form the "beautiful immensity" of the Charleston Harbor. Leo has just gotten off probation for a very dumb crime (he was a fall guy and got stuck holding drugs for someone else). Leo's life is looking up. His father takes out two silver cups and a bottle of Jack Daniel's. He wants to share his son's first drink with him. He salutes Leo, and asks him to be a fine man, to be the best man he is capable of being. The scene cuts deep. And there are many other such fine, rich and satisfying moments in South of Broad.

There are always wounded souls in Conroy's fiction, along with the beautiful sentences. Despite some of the unlikely events and resolutions, I count myself lucky to have visited Conroy's Charleston via the pages of this novel. Its people, architecture and tidal waters clearly continue to feed his ever-loving, ever-writing soul.