Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The First Egg

Our chickens Betty Boop and Scarlett O'Hara (pictured above) finally started earning their keep. About mid-day, Sunday February 21, one or the other of them finally laid an egg. Success at last! We purchased the Ameraucana hens in early November. They are known for laying "Easter" eggs in colors of blue and green. The chickens were born in north Texas and arrived by mail at about four months old. My husband built them a nice chicken coop behind the garage. Since then, the girls have had the run of the yard, and began their reign of flower, herb and vegetable annihilation. We are in the process of fencing off a smaller area of the yard for their run. They are going to miss their free range but unless we confine them their appetite for foliage would mean little or no success in spring gardening. After all, here in Houston it is almost time to put tomato plants in the ground.

What have I learned that I didn't know about chickens before? There is some yellow pigmentation seen in their beaks and legs when they are not yet laying eggs. This same yellow pigment goes into the egg yolks once the hens start producing eggs. This process is known as bleaching, and the pigment drains progressively the more eggs they lay. The average hen lays about 265 eggs a year. When their feathers are molting or they are not getting enough light, they don't lay eggs. They can fly but usually don't stay in the air more than a few seconds. Until they are one year old, they are called pullets and then hens after that. Backyard chicken farmers often use a portable bottomless cage known as a chicken tractor or ark in order to move birds around to different areas of the yard. Chickens eat grit because they don't have teeth. They store the small stone particles in their gizzard, which grinds the grit with their food before it heads into the intestines.

The chickens are getting to used to being around us as time goes on. Betty and Scarlett seem to have warmed up to my husband more than me. He puts his hands down low and kind of hovers near them and then is successful at quickly picking them up. At first I was skittish about holding them, but that passed quickly. Now I find it very satisfying to hug a chicken; it feels like holding a fat football. I talk to them when I let them out in the morning or feed them scraps. They do come running towards the gate when they think I might have treats. And yesterday we found a second egg in the nesting box. Next step is the taste test. I am looking forward to the perfect fried egg sandwich. Hopefully soon we will have occasional eggs to share with friends.

To quote Frank McCourt: "Oh, God above, if heaven has a taste it must be an egg with butter and salt, and after the egg is there anything lovlier than fresh warm bread and a mug of sweet golden tea?" - Angela's Ashes: a Memoir (Scribner, 1996)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Albert Huffstickler, Poet and Outsider Artist

"Outsider Art" is one of those ornery terms that people dislike and disagree about, yet everyone more or less knows what it means. I like the way it is defined on the Interesting Ideas webpage, as "Creative works -- paintings, drawings, sculptures, assemblages, and idiosyncratic gardens and other outdoor constructions -- by people who have little or no formal art training and who produce (or at least began producing) art without regard to the mainstream art world's recognition, marketplace or definitions."

Here in Houston, we have a great example in the Orange Show, an architectural maze built with ordinary and found materials by one Jeff McKissack from the year 1956 to 1980. He worked in isolation way outside of any mainstream, and I wonder what his neighbors thought of his feverish mosaics and unusual sculptures, many in homage to his beloved fruit, the orange. I had the honor of reading poetry there once sometime in the 1980s with the Flying Dutchman Group.

But the real purpose of my post today is homage for my friend Albert Huffstickler (Huff), whose oil pastel drawing of a lion has a place of pride in my study. Huff (1927 - 2002)was known more for his poetry than his art, but late in life he became a tornado of drawing activity, selling color copies of his art for supplementary income. Known as the Bard of Hyde Park, Huff was Austin's favorite offbeat, down to earth philosophical poet for many years. The main keeper of Huff's flame is his friend, poet Felicia Mitchell, who last year created a Huffstickler group on Facebook.

I have a large collection of letters from Huff, and a pile of his drawings which I hope to scan and post to the Facebook page soon. I met Huff in 1994, the same year he did his drawing of the lion, at the Austin Poetry Fest. Come to think of it, I met Felicia Mitchell there for the first time too. At that time I had just started editing a small press poetry journal called Arrowsmith. One of the first poems that landed in Arrowsmith's PO Box was one from Huff. It seemed like magic; no sooner did I set up shop than he was knocking at my door. Our friendship began there and continued until his death. When he and my friend, the Houston poet Susanne R. Bowers also became friends and lovers, he visited Houston often. They loved to sit and draw together in Susie's kitchen, stepping out into her yard for frequent cigarette breaks. (I would like to write a post about Susie some other day. I was pleased to see that her chapbook, Grappling, is still available from Nerve Cowboy in Austin.)

I've already published my favorite Arrowsmith poem by Huff, "Reading at the State Mental Hospital" in a 2009 post. But here is that first poem Huff sent me in 1994:

As Simple as That

Some plants root from cuttings
But sometimes when you take a cutting
and put it in the ground,
it will suddenly start to bloom
and will sprout few if any roots.
And sometimes after it blooms,
it will die because
it has no roots to feed it:
everything it had was spent
in bringing that flower to life.
And this is a metaphor that
not everyone will understand:
the bloomers will probably understand it
and the rooters will probably not.

Huff's "Lion" drawing has always looked to me like a portrait of himself. You could pass Huff on the street and maybe not give him a separate glance. He kind of shuffled along, his pants drooping despite suspenders, and you could see he was very self-involved, like any good introvert poet. But put that man at a poetry podium, throw on a pair of professorial reading glasses, and his demeanor changed. He became the Poet, a regal one at that, leonine in posture. You could be in a noisy Austin coffeehouse and suddenly there would be a hush because Huff was reading. He had every one's respect. I don't know how to explain it but the man had at those times a demeanor that was both humble and majestic.

As seen on a Hyde Park, Austin mural: LONG LIVE HUFF.

drawing by Albert Huffstickler: Lion, 1994.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Memory Benefits of Collage Work

Make two collages and call me in the morning! Imagine those words as doctor's orders..... I am convinced that doing lots of collage work is giving my memory a good workout. I sometimes can't remember where I put household items, books or boring paperwork, but generally I can put my hands on certain scrap images I've collected in different files and folders.

At some point I began subdividing the great paper scrap pile into large subdivisions. First there was a Nature file, then that bifurcated into one for Flowers and one for Nature. Human images used to include both People and Dolls but I was collecting so many doll images, soon they got their own folder. And before long, I needed separate files for dolls in color and dolls in black and white. And so it goes.

You know you are obsessed with collage when you start collecting even solid color scraps. I use blue and purple so much, they got their own folders. I am pleased when I can put my hands on the exact color or image I need and can recall setting aside somewhere. Not that every thing is neat and tidy in my collage workspace!

Although there is a lot to be said for organization, sometimes the creative mind knows not exactly what is needed. So I keep stacks of old magazines around, as well as boxtops full of unsorted images, new stuff coming in or little pieces left over from the previous day's artwork. Sometimes a newly finished piece looks incomplete the next day and you need a little bit more of some pattern or design, so you learn to hold onto even the tiniest scraps.

I wouldn't be a good librarian, albeit retired, if I didn't mention my favorite novel about a collage artist: Celestial Navigation (Random House, 1974) by Anne Tyler. She succeeds wonderfully in showing how the mind of an artist works, thinking in colors and shapes. As I recall, Jeremy Pauling is the kind of man who really sticks to his knitting, rarely leaving the house. He may even be agoraphobic. He seems myopic. His reality is very much his own. When his mother dies, a woman and child come into his life and nothing is the same after that. I've read it twice but want to give a third read in the near distant future. For me, Anne Tyler's books are like old friends I'm always glad to spend time with again. Old friends (and collage) are as good as therapy!

collage by KAO: Courting Balance, 2009.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Of Primroses (and Telephone Exchanges)

Growing up on Long Island in the 1950s and 60s, my family's phone number began with PR for Primrose, and since I lived in a place called Floral Park, that seemed appropriate. We all lived on streets named for flowers. Before the spread of suburbia, our area was dominated by mail order flower farms. I liked those old word-and-number telephone exchanges. At some point the USA changed to purely numerical numbers, effectively taking the poetry out of telephone addresses.

But I never knew what primroses really looked like until I took a trip to San Francisco one winter. Admiring the pretty two and even three-colored flowers planted in containers just about everywhere, I asked somebody what they were and closed that gap in my knowledge of flora and fauna. Of course there are many different varieties. This winter I've had great luck with a potted purple primrose. It just keeps blooming and blooming.

Primroses are perennial in places like Oregon. They like damp, moist conditions. Here in Houston they do well in late fall, winter and early spring. When it hits 80 degrees Fahrenheit, they're history. They don't need much sunshine and like a fair amount of compost, manure or fertilizer.

What about walking down primrose paths? I don't know how or why this particular flower came to be involved with what is a negative concept: a course of self-indulgent action that is deceptively easy but may very well lead to calamity or disaster. Like so many idioms, the saying seems to hark back to Shakespeare, appearing in both Hamlet and Macbeth. In Hamlet, Ophelia warns her brother not to take an easy primrose path of dalliance towards hell. In Macbeth, the Porter speaks the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire. In today's parlance, it is often the stockbrokers or bankers that are accused of leading us to such a place. Ginger Rogers starred in a film named Primrose Path, wherein she is determined not to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who happened to be a prostitute. As a name, the Primrose is more common as a last name than a first, no surprise.

For more information on the cultivation of primroses, there's lots to learn on the American Primrose Society webpage. As for their folklore, in Ireland and Wales primroses are characterized as fairy flowers, thought to give powers of invisibility. And that's just about everything I was able to learn about primroses today. Thank you, fair readers!

photo by KAO: purple primrose and backyard hen, 2010