Saturday, May 28, 2011

Friendship Bread by Darien Gee

Take one grieving mother (Julia Evans), an about-to-be divorced concert cellist (Hannah Wang de Brisay), a widow who just started a tea room (Madeline Davis), add a bag of Amish friendship bread starter, some good small town Illinois atmosphere and you've got a yeasty sugary/spicy novel named Friendship Bread (Ballantine, 2011) by Darian Gee. Add in access to all sorts of friendship bread recipes on the official Friendship Bread website, and you've got a phenomenon!

This novel falls into the cozy women's fiction niche that I so enjoy in between other more literary or genre-busting novels. For me, one of the most important appeal factors in fiction is characters I can care about, worry over and sit with in times of trouble. This novel provides that: all the main characters have their issues and problems, and somehow through the sharing of a bread starter and a few cups of tea, connections are made and new friendships born. Who can argue with that?

When I first started working at HCPL/West University Library in the early 1980s, my coworkers were into sharing a sourdough starter they named Herman. They passed around bags of dough, and for reasons I can't recall (perhaps my hectic big city social life), I never accepted the offer of a bag of Herman to take home. Prior to my professional career in librarianship, I was involved in an upstate NY back-to-the-land lifestyle that involved plenty of bread baking (on wood stoves, no less). Maybe I was taking a break from baking after I moved to Houston. Now I love to bake, and later today will be making a strawberry rhubarb crumble to take to a family gathering this weekend. Although recipes are included in the Friendship Bread book, I'm not sure I will ever get into the project because of the rapidly-multiplying starter factor much exemplified in the novel.

Also, most of the recipes seem to involve the eventual addition of Jello pudding mix. I'm sure these recipes result in some unique and tasty sweet breads, but somehow the use of Jello doesn't sound very Amish, does it? However, I will be reaching for Gee's next novel in this new series, which I learned she is busy writing. For a first novel, it looks like she is having incredible success, and I'm curious to see how the recipe evolves in the next installation. Bon appetit!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Creative Writing: an Interview with Chris Woods

Christopher Woods is a writer, teacher and photographer who lives in Houston and in Chappell Hill, Texas. He recently completed a darkly comedic novel, HEARTS IN THE DARK, about a radio talk-show host. His photo essays
have appeared in Public Republic, Narrative Magazine, Glasgow Review, Best Fiction and Deep South. He shares a gallery with his wife Linda at Moonbird Hill Arts. I first met Chris via a creative writing class I took many years ago at Rice University Continuing Studies. Here is one of my favorite poems from Chris:

Edward Hopper’s Women

So easy to call them fragile,
but that is how they appear
their eyes fixed on something
still unnamed.
Moving and not.
Inside the wide world of a room.
Or through a window, staring into the void.

In the end, all that truly matters
is that they continue to gaze.
that their eyes have not yet closed
in private defeat, even if the world itself
has given up the cause.
Their faith is not in what they see,
but in what they seek.

Out there, beyond a world
always so very close to breaking.

How does teaching creative writing affect your own writing practice? I think it helps. Teaching keeps me involved with others who are being creative. It helps me to know how others work, what they write about, what is meaningful to them. Because I submit my own work, I am familiar with the writing markets. I share this information with my classes. In my mind, it is all connected.

I know you often assign writing exercises involving photographs. Do you write from visual images yourself? Personally, I find that a single image is seen and interpreted differently, and often quite distinctly, by each person. This is because we have different pasts, memories and life experiences. A visual image can awaken something inside us in a way that a written prompt cannot. When I am writing, I often begin with a visual, whether imaginative or simply something I have observed. It rarely fails to ignite the creative process. Images can dip into our subconscious.

You have had many plays produced. What has that been like? There are few more exciting things than to see one's characters come to life on stage. Different actors bring something new to a role, no matter how many times a playwright sees a work produced. I have learned much from actors and directors. I am thankful for the collaborative effort to produce theater. Most writing comes about in solitary confinement, so to speak, so to work with others on a play is completely different, and I think most rewarding.

Do you write every day? Tell us a little about your creative process. I do not write every day unless I am trying to complete a longer project. I write when the spirit moves. But I usually do something related to writing every day. It might be to make a submission, or to correspond with an editor. I make notes. I revise. I work on photographs. I keep my foot in the creative river. I am always reading, usually literary journals.

Who are your favorite writers? There are some writers that I have admired for many years. William Stafford comes easily to mind. I like the French existentialists, the Latin magic realists. In plays, I like the work of Harold Pinter most. I am also inspired by photographers and painters.

What's next for you? I am working on a collection of photographs and texts. The working title is "Ruralities" and the book is about life in the country. My wife Linda and I have had a place in the country for five years, and our lives have changed so much. I have been publishing photographs and various kinds of writing with the "Ruralities" theme, and I realize now that it might be good to collect them in book form.

Thank you, Chris!

Photo and text "At the end of every road..." by Christopher Woods

Photo of Chris by Linda Woods

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Rich Symbology of Labyrinths

Labyrinths have found their way into my artwork for the last year or more. I like to use them in two ways: as symbols of wholeness, and then the reverse: when chopped and broken, to reflect the disharmony of our modern world. For me, labyrinths are both simple and complex. I have been powerfully drawn to labyrinths since I first set foot on one in the late 1990s.

My favorite labyrinth in the Houston area is located at the University of St Thomas, next to the St. Basil's chapel. What makes walking this labyrinth particularly pleasant is not only the wonderful stone inlay work, but also the ambiance. There are some lovely rose bushes encircling the labyrinth as well as three fountains spouting water, which help to drown out any traffic noises on nearby Alabama Street. Walking a labyrinth can be a form of spiritual practice, prayer or meditation. Lauren Artress, author and renowned labyrinth facilitator refers to the labyrinth as a watering hole for the spirit. Her book, Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool (Riverhead, 1995 and revised edition 2006) is essential reading on the topic.

To find a labyrinth near you, go to the Labyrinth Locator website. To learn more about labyrinths, visit The Labyrinth Society or Veriditas websites.

collages by KAO: Labyrinthia 1, Broken Labyrinth #5, The Path to the Labyrinth.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Painting: New Mexico Artist OlgaTeresa Gonzalez Baigus

OlgaTeresa Gonzalez Baigus is a friend from my college days in upstate New York. She has always been tremendously inspiring to me. When I first met Olga, she was active as a poet. Later she became a dancer, and now a painter. She lives and works near Taos, New Mexico. Since the two of us could talk for hours about our mutual fascinations, it was difficult to narrow this interview down, but I think her answers to the few questions we have room for introduce her Gestalt very well. To see more of Olga's work, visit

You were a dance teacher for a number of years. How does dance influence your painting? My orientation in both Art and Dance is communication. Gesture and Line are basic considerations when I do figure drawing, landscapes, and even portraits. As a dancer we are always aware of place in space, silhouette, negative space, and communication through line or stance. As a choreographer I am always aware of composition and placement in space. All of this combines into my work with Visual Arts (painting, drawing, printmaking)and the difference between the two art forms (Dance and Visual Arts) is seamless for me, unambiguous, and inseparable.

What is your proudest accomplishment as a painter?
To date, it is the ability to communicate to the viewer. I am a selling artist, and those who buy my work are particular and "Get the Connection". I can make art and dance for myself; however, in both painting and dance, it is the ability to communicate to whoever appreciates and is affected by the work that matters. Such appreciation continues to enable the flow of the "Creation Gift" that is a definition of my existence.

Do you start a painting knowing what it will be, or does the work unfold?
Sometimes. I am currently into a body of work using painting as a narrative... a social, spiritual, political comment or question. Because of this I use preplanned layout, impact with color, mixed media etc. However, I am the kind of artist who feels some other thing or one works through me ("Within me and Without me"). I feel at a point I plug into a creative flow and another hand, beyond Myself is at work... so my work takes a turn sometimes that I know not how it entered, what or why it did what it did, and what it means. I do not fight this impulse... this is the most important part of the art... and many times I look back at the piece and do not know who painted it.

Did you enjoy drawing and painting as a child?
Yes always. I was in love with the Crayola Box. I was a first born Hispanic to the USA with Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrant parents. I was born in 1950 in the Bronx, New York City. When the 64 Crayola Crayons came out, it was paradise for me. I had bags and bags of crayons. I do not know how I kept from eating them...the colors meant so much. The smell of the wax! I loved the rough texture of most of my earlier coloring books that took the wax pigment so well. I lusted after comic books and spent eternal hours trying to copy Marvel comics, though I was prompted by a very strict mother who said I shouldn't read boys' comics so much... So I amassed a large collection of Little Dot (I loved her Dots), Nancy and Sluggo Art, and later Katy Keene (who took me through many lonely years by allowing me to make total fashion lines for her...many bridal gowns that looked like birthday cakes).
I also remember seeing Miss Frances' Ding Dong School, on our tiny black and white TV in 1955. We sent away for a special film we could stick on the screen and then with special pens so I could draw what Miss Frances drew. I was obsessed with the early Color Forms (squares, triangles, etc. that you could stick to a special board)... I would make cities and perspective and try to redraw them on paper. I always loved the paints in school and raised my hand for all paint projects... finger paints, poster paints. My Mom loved the paint-by-number oil paints. She was meticulous and taught me to fill in the shapes carefully. I wish I had more training when I was young, and encouragement to be free with my art. However, thanks to the comic book world and to black and white cartoons, Terrytoon Circus and Max Fleischer productions (dark and strange as the black and white mice and cats danced across the screen to music) and Walt Disney, I was given courage. My mind is in this neverland. I also cleave to Juxtapose and graffiti art, though I also have passion for more classic art... I see the same in both.

What's next artwise?
I am renovating my website (If I can conquer Dreamweaver) and want to open an online gallery to sell my own work, as well as my friends' work. I have a lot of art friends; we habituate the University of New Mexico art department in large painting, printmaking and drawing classes and feed off each other's psyches and spirits. We enter "Shows" all the time and try to sell. We are all different, which is thrilling and inspiring. I have recently retired from full time dance teaching and choreography, though to keep my body from fading away, I teach 2 classes a week to young teens. I work 100% with my artwork. My styles change as I explore, though I am always fascinated with Magic Gods and Monsters (icons and archetypes). I train (as I would in dance barre work) with various teachers in portrait, landscape and figure drawing. My newest teacher is a nonrepresentational minimalist. I am going to try my hand at this orientation. I also am going to expand my outdoor art series (colorful 8 foot tall totem poles) and am working on a new piece related to the catastrophe on the Pacific Rim.

Thank you, Olga!

Artwork by OlgaTeresa Gonzalez Baigus: Ghosts panels (mixed media), Silver Wolf (pastel and pencil)