Thursday, December 6, 2012

Favorite Books, 2012

2012 has been a difficult year for my family due to my mother's health. Thank goodness for daily escapes to the land of literature. Here are ten of my favorites, some of which I blogged about individually in past posts:

Anshaw, Carol. Carry the One (Simon & Schuster, 2012). On their way home from a wedding, a car full of young people are involved in an accident that kills a young girl, a tragedy affecting all for years to come. A multi-layered, psychologically astute novel about loss, addiction and friendship.

Boyd, William. Waiting for Sunrise (Harper, 2012). A British actor flees to Vienna in 1913 in search of psychological help for his libido and becomes a spy during World War I. Something for everyone: psychology, romance, history, espionage, plus a literary style reminiscent of Thomas Mann or D.H. Lawrence.

Doig, Ivan. The Bartender's Tale  (Riverhead, 2012). A father-son novel set in small town Montana largely during the summer of 1960. Reunited with his bar-tending father after many years apart, Rusty drinks down a wolloping dose of  manliness and life's mysteries and meanings during one very dramatic summer. Top drawer fiction; surely destined to be one of Doig's classics.

Ivey, Eowyn. The Snow Child (Little, Brown & Co., 2012) A tale of Alaskan survival set in a gossamer white wonderland of magical realism. A woman who has lost a baby meets a small blond-haired wood sprite wearing red mittens who may or may not be real. Read it to find out!  

Machak, Joel. Upheaval (XLibris, 2011). Starring Nokomis, also known as Earth Mother, this Native American-themed novel is set in what is now Arizona some 950 years ago when volcanic activity has very much changed the landscape.  Much of her wisdom is called upon when Nokomis meets a restless young man set on vengeance for his tribe's slaughter. Post-apocalyptic, earth-reverent, suspenseful.

Netzer, Lydia. Shine, Shine, Shine (St. Martin's, 2012). Her mother is dying. Her second child is about to be born. Her astronaut husband has gone to the moon. Secretly bald Sunny stops wearing wigs and reexamines her life. A quirky read chock full of secrets unfettered.

Penney, Stef. The Invisible Ones (Putnam, 2012). What first appears as a missing persons case turns into much more after almost-divorced, half-Romany sad sack Private Investigator Ray Lovell stirs up old stories related to a traveling Gypsy family. Set in England, circa 1980, this complex mystery affords a fascinating look at Romany culture.

Rogers, Morgan Callan. Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea (Viking, 2012). In 1963, twelve year-old Florine Gilham's world is torn upside down when her mother disappears. Neither her lobster-fishing father or down-to-earth grandmother can quite fill the hole in Florine's heart. An emotionally moving coming of age story.

Stedman, M. L. The Light Between Oceans. (Scribner, 2012). On an island off Australia, a lighthouse keeper and his wife find a baby washed ashore in a boat. A man who is probably her father is dead in the boat. They are bereaved, having lost a child. What happens next? This winner of the 2012 Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction is a suspenseful, engaging literary masterpiece.

Tilghman, Christopher. The Right Hand Shore. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012). Maryland peach orchard/plantation owner and spinster Mary Bayly is dying. When possible new owner Edward Mason is given a tour of the place, readers are treated to a feast of stories told about the generations of white and black people who have toiled there. Multi-themed, rich, wonderful; a prequel to Mason's Retreat (Random House, 1996).

Friday, November 23, 2012

My "Altar Art for Labyrinth Lovers" Collage Series

I've been in holiday production mode for the last two weeks, getting ready for an arts and crafts sale next weekend at the home of a fellow crafter, as well as restocking the shelves at shops where I consign my collage prints.

Because I decided to redesign my "Altar Art for Labyrinth Lovers" collage series to include text, some computer manipulation was involved. My skills with Photoshop Elements need improvement and I was not up to the task. Luckily I was able to call on a friend to help me get the final design hammered down. Then I began the joyful wok of mixing and matching paper elements to complement the various labyrinths. My printer broke down during this period, so I was forced to rely on the public library and Office Depot to get some of my bits and pieces printed. To make a long story short, today I finished the last batch of a few dozen collages and will take some over to Lucia's Garden tomorrow.

I decided I needed to analyze the steps involved in making the labyrinth collages. These small art pieces are only 4 x 4", made to prop up on a shelf or spiritual altar. But I know now that at least thirteen steps go into the process, yikes! Sorry, but I can't resist subjecting you to my process list. Writing down the many steps made me realize how complex the process really is. Not that I'm complaining; I love doing them, but there is more to it than meets the eye. As for cost analysis, I'll leave that for another day. Affording my art supply habit is no joke.

1. Acquire papers, matboard, paint, ink, glue, acrylic medium and cellophane bags.
2. Cut matboard and text squares with paper cutter.
3. Print and cut out labyrinths of different sizes, color as needed.
4. Assemble collage (my favorite part, of course!).
5. Press collages in wax paper between pages of a heavy book overnight.
6. Clean off any glue smears using vinegar and water solution.
7. Scan images into computer; edit as needed (more for my records than for actual selling).
8. Seal collages with protective acrylic coating.
9. Photocopy packaging inserts.
10. Sign collage backs.
11. Attach collages to inserts with sticky squares.
12. Seal in a cellophane bag.
13. Sell or consign!

So, today there is peace in my art room. All my little labyrinths are ready to go. This series has been selling pretty well without text, but I'm hoping some people may appreciate the educational/inspirational intent of the words which explain the labyrinth process: Release your concerns on entering the labyrinth, Receive, Renew, then Return. This form of walking meditation either works for you or it doesn't. There is one way in and one way out. At the center seekers often find peace. It always works for me. For more information about labyrinths, see the Veriditas website. Veriditas is having a Bidding for Good auction right now, and I am delighted to have donated some of my artwork to the cause.

photos: Altar Art series packaged and ready to go; AA #90 collage by Keddy Ann Outlaw

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Bartender's Tale by Ivan Doig

It was so great to be back in the hands of Ivan Doig again! The Bartender's Tale (Riverhead, 2012), a father-son novel set in small town Montana near Doig's beloved English Creek, has a real flavor of its time, circa 1960. Young Rusty worships and reveres his bartender father. Yet he is mystified by him too, having been separated from him for a number of years. Things all come together during the summer of 1960, when Rusty, about age 12, becomes best friends with the new girl in town, Zoe.

Because much about Rusty's absentee mother as well as his father's history has been kept from him, he and Zoe conjure up all kinds of dramatic explanations. Zoe's parents run the cafe in town where Rusty eats every night. Those two have so much kismet together, they delight the heart. That summer they take a strong interest in acting. They also enjoy listening in on events going on in the bar from their perch in the office, where a hidden vent gives them a peek into the strange world of adults. More minor character come strongly to life, including sheepherders, a visiting oral historian, and others even closer to the father and son who I won't enumerate here for fear of getting into spoilers. The Bartender's Tale read like a classic, one I won't soon forget. Another Doig title I highly recommend is The Whistling Season (2007), one of my all-time favorites

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Bittersweet Fall: Red, Yellow and Orange

I enjoyed spending some time in western New York state last week, but it did rain a bit. I was eldersitting my mother at my brother's home and while she napped, I got into a bit of foolishness with wet leaves. The result was the pumpkin face adhered to a car parked in my brother's yard. It gave my sister-in-law a laugh when she pulled into the driveway later that day. I much enjoyed seeing the colorful leaves everywhere, especially the deep red ones, since we hardly ever see those here in Houston. When I lived in upstate NY more than three decades ago, I remember how the red leaves on the sumac trees clung to their branches even past the first snowfall.

I am rarely in the mood for Halloween anymore. Maybe I felt more in the mood when I lived on the East coast. But as a Texan, I have gotten into Day of the Dead. I've made retablos and sugar skulls and attended various festivities and art shows. This year I look forward to celebrating Day of the Dead by attending a cooking lesson/dinner party offered by Lucia Bettler of Lucia's Garden. Lucia sells my collage and assemblage creations on consignment at her shop, such an honor and pleasure.

For some serious contemplation on the meaning of Halloween/All Hallows Eve, I recommend reading a post entitled "Into the Wild" written by my friend Bonnie Casey. Her My Write Mind blog is always well written, often self-deprecating and inevitably rich in wisdom. In it she asks us to use this time of year to ponder the dark monsters which inhabit the wilderness of our psyches. Call it soul work or reflection, it doesn't much matter. When I travel and get away from my daily routines, I find myself growing self reflective. I feel more able to see the "big picture" and then find it easier to identify what's most important when I return home. Seeing Fall in the northeast was bittersweet and my soul was stirred. I am in awe of how Bonnie can so easily turn her soul inside out when she writes. Here are her closing words: "May we all have the courage to go into the wild, unexplored recesses of our deeper selves, and there find treasure and healing."

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Unitarian Universalist Chalice Collages

I've had it in mind to try doing some UU Chalice collages for some time (in fact, that Post-it note just about lost its stickiness on my bulletin board...). An upcoming auction at First UU Church of Houston gave me the impetus to start this new series. They are presented above, in descending order of creation.  "Holy UU Blazes" is my favorite. The flaming chalice is a primary symbol of the Unitarian Universalist faith. All involved some use of paint and/or colored pencil, so that makes them mixed media collages. I have done spiritual collages in the past, ranging in subjects from Buddhism to labyrinths and the Virgin Mary, but I am glad to have finally addressed my own faith. All the collages are small, most about 5" square. Three of them will be for sale at the annual Auction on Saturday, November 3, 2012, at First Church, 5200 Fannin Street, Houston.

Images: UU Chalice 4 (Holy UU Blazes), UU Chalice 3, UU Chalice 2, UU Chalice 1: Collage series by Keddy Ann Outlaw

Monday, September 24, 2012


The summer of 2011 was a time of drought in Houston. Although I hand watered a passionflower vine I grew from seed, it never blossomed. Being an evergreen perennial climber, the vine made it through the winter just fine before being attacked by caterpillars in June. I thought it was a goner, but it stubbornly came back. One at a time, sometime well into July, single passionflowers started appearing. The blooms only last a day and are about the most exotic flower I've ever grown.

Reading about passionflowers, I learned they are considered an invasive weed in some parts of the Southeastern United States. I first saw a massive blooming passionflower vine some years ago in Orange Texas, and have wanted to try one ever since. We'll see if they invade and spread via their rhizomes like so many other plants in my yard. Weedy passionflowers are also known as "Maypops" because they tend to pop up out of the ground round about May. Along with their Christian symbolism, passionflowers are also associated with Krishna in India. The Germans call them "Mother of God's Star" and the Israelis the "Clock flower", so there is plenty of symbolism attached to this odd flower. I think they look a little carnivorous, and sure enough, there is one variety, the "Stinking Passionflower", that is considered protocarnivorous, known for catching and consuming insects. Passionflowers are pollinated by bees, wasps, hummingbirds, even bats. Some species are endangered, yet new varieties are still being found.

Passionflowers do grow fruit, especially in places like the Caribbean, South America and south Florida, and are mainly harvested for their juice. The leaves and roots have medicinal properties and tend to be used in calming, anti-anxiety tea blends.

 Partial to full sun is required for successful results and they bloom in mid to late summer. My vine is producing about two flowers a week; wink and they are gone. Yes, I used Miracle-Gro, but my vision of riotous purple flowers all over the back fence has not yet quite manifested. There's always next year!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Getting Back Into Goodreads

In the last year or so of my library career, I joined Goodreads and started keeping track of the books I read using their software.. Then when I retired in 2009, I promptly forgot about the site because when I was appointed the to the TLA Lariat Adult Reading List, I went back to the index card method of jotting down plots, impressions and opinions. Across the years, especially doing readers' advisory work, I kept notebooks and card files of books I had read, and they helped me to recall appeal factors when someone needed a "good read" or I had an article to write. Now I've jumped back onto Goodreads and am finding it to be relatively easy way to document my life as a reader. Typing a quick review right after I've read a book is good discipline. Goodreads gives you an ratings option of assigning up to five stars to a title. My only beef about that is I often find myself wishing for half stars as well....

These days I am not so speedy about writing book-related blog posts here. So today I am looking back at some of the books I rated on Goodreads during the last couple of months. I gave The Right Hand Shore (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) by Christopher Tilghman five stars. I much enjoyed Mason's Retreat by Tilghman (Random House, 1996), so I knew I wanted to read this prequel. A complex historical novel set in the Chesapeake Bay area, the book weaves together many themes: love, family, inheritance, religion, racial viewpoints and inter-racial relationships, man vs. nature, etc. But it strikes me that arching over all of those are the themes of destiny and fate. Any author that can do that deserves major kudos. This book has real substance, and at times reminded me of The Known World (Amistad, 2003) by Edward Jones.

This month at the West University Library Book Group, we read State of Wonder (HarperCollins, 2011) by Ann Patchett. The group's opinions were mixed, but for me this was a five star read. Big wow! I found it to be a suspenseful, top notch literary thriller. Most of the characters were well-developed, especially two women doctors: one sent to the Amazon to find out more about the death of her pharmaceutical company colleague, the other an older, reclusive, possibly megalomaniac doctor researching a fertility drug. The exotic, if creepy-crawly Amazon jungle setting made me want to get out the bug spray. I don't think the decorative Baroque or Renaissance style of the cover suits the book, although the snakes and mushrooms therein hint at plot elements. I really had to skip over some of the creepy-crawly scenes, but that's just me. Let's put it this way: I won't be going to the Amazon anytime soon. Yet I loved the book!

I generally do not write about books I don't much care for, but I have to comment on Heading Out To Wonderful (Algonquin, 2012) by Robert Goolrick, which I gave a two star Goodreads rating. I loved his sizzling page-turner, A Reliable Wife (Algonquin, 2009), and Goolrick had me for the first half of Heading Out to Wonderful. But as the book went on, I was saddened by the unease of a young boy taken along to various rendezvous between two lovers. The plot went dark, with no hope of redemption. Too much blood was spilled after a beautiful beginning... Also I wondered where the main character, Beebo, got all his money (maybe I missed something?) to buy land for himself and his adulterous sweetheart. I wanted some of these characters to break out of the tangled web they wove, and though there was one scene where life won over death, even that was soon tainted by the tragic trajectory the novel took. I am not a reader who always needs happy endings, but this was way too dark for me. I do admire Goolrick's writing style and ability to get inside his characters' heads. With a title like Heading out to Wonderful, excuse me -- I expected a little more sunshine!

SoulCollage by KAO: Happy Reader (2009)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life by David Treuer

During my back-to-the-land days in the mid 70s, I absorbed the written works of Sioux medicine man Black Elk. These days I belong to a women's spiritual circle that gathers every Sunday to discuss lessons set forth by Seneca/Cherokee author Jamie Sams. We also raise some funds for native American charities. I have been to the National Museum of the American Indian in DC, and walked through the Taos Pueblo only last year. Yet other than in passing, I have not spent any significant time in the company of Native Americans, but reading David Treuer's fine book, Rez Life (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012) almost makes me feel like I have.

David Treuer grew up on the Ojibwe Leech Lake reservation in northern Minnesota. Each chapter in this book loosely revolves around narratives tied to reservation members, including his grandfather whose suicide and burial begin and end the book, his mother, Margaret Seelye Treuer (a tribal court judge) fishing buddies and pranksters on both sides of the law. The author describes the book as a hybrid of journalism, history and memoir.

Although I skimmed over much of the history, I did learn some new facts about native Americans I believe will stick with me. For instance, I never realized that Indians could not legally practice their religions until 1978 when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed. Outrageous. Did you know that Seminole tribe owns the Hard Rock Cafe Franchise? Because of casino gaming profits, some tribes have grown quite prosperous, branching out into banking and real estate, etc. The intricacies of treaties (often broken, of course), along with federal and state laws related to tribal rights, are enough to make anyone's head spin. The importance of saving Native American languages is one of the author's grand causes. Of the approximately 300 such languages in use when the Europeans came to the USA, now there are about 150, but only three are really "vibrant": Dakota, Dene and Ojibwe. The tricky topic of tribal enrollment and blood quotas is well aired. Treuer does not sugar coat any of these issues, something I much appreciated.

The most touching part of the book for me came during the last chapter, when the author writes about the feelings he had driving around in his recently deceased grandfather's Silverado truck, as if the ghost of his grandfather was with him, and in many cases, the sight of David Treuer in that truck affected others that way too, stopping them in their tracks. As he drove along, it was as if all his many ancestors rode with him.

"I am not supposed to be alive. Native Americans were supposed to die off, as endangered species do, a century ago," Truer says. "We stubbornly continue to exist." Thank goodness for that. For me there is no group of peoples more outrageously wronged nor more culturally fascinating. If you are interested in what contemporary reservation life is like, get your hands of a copy of Rez Life. This book was five years in the making and it shows. Thank you, David Treuer.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Recent Collages

Squares series 05 - "Keen"



collages by Keddy Ann Outlaw

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead

The Coldest Night: a Novel of Love and War (Algonquin, 2012) by Robert Olmstead has a style so immediate and atmospheric, it took my breath away. I found myself wishing there was a little more love and a lot less war, but I stayed with it. Although it is not a suspense story, it had its own constant worrisome tension. Would star-crossed young lovers Henry and Mercy be able to make a life for themselves after running away to New Orleans? And when Henry Childs becomes a Marine and is sent to Korea, every page serves up the pure terror of war.

This epic novel has a timeless quality. Olmstead bears comparison with Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy and Jim Harrison. Often when I came across Olmstead's well-crafted sentences, I felt compelled to read them more than once before continuing with the narrative. And so in my effort to demonstrate Olmstead's literary wizardry, here is one sentence about war that dazzled me:

His fear was hammer-striking at the walls of his heart and he was desperate to kill and not be killed.

Barely eighteen, Henry Childs is the everyman boy soldier, and his acquaintance with death in all its forms haunts the novel.

As for love, here is a short passage between Mercy and Henry:

"I am a fool," he said.
"I love fools," she said, swinging her legs across his lap and her arm at his neck, "because they believe that anything can happen. I am about sure I was made for you."

Yes, it was the style more than the plot that gobsmacked me. Although I might have wanted some of the plot details to have played out differently, that didn't matter. I look forward to reading two other Olmstead novels about the Childs family: Coal Black Horse (Algonquin, 2007) and Far Bright Star (Algonquin, 2009). I don't know where Robert Olmstead has been all my life, but I am going to be chasing him down from now on...

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Hungry Ears

As recently as only five years ago, I mainly listened to radio when I was out walking or bicycling. Now my listening habits are much more diversified. My, how the iPod has enriched my life. First of all, I much appreciate the ability to build a music library and create playlists.The more music I collect, the more I seem to want. I guess you could say I have hungry ears.

When I am making art, I like to listen to all kinds of music, including world, folk, rock, classical, New Age, you name it. Brandi Carlile, Slaid Cleaves, Alejandro Escovedo, Dar Williams, Unbunny, Gipsy Kings, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Glen Hansard and Natalie Merchant all have places on my Best Rated playlist.When I am writing, I need instrumental music, and don't mind playing Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" or Erik Satie's "Piano Works" over and over.

But most of all, I rely on my iPod for intellectual content via NPR podcasts. I am hooked on "The Splendid Table" for foodie topics, "Krista Tippett On Being" for ethics, spirituality, psychology and scientific topics, and "New Yorker: Out Loud" for at least a smattering of  their great magazine articles I don't seem to have time to read. "All Songs Considered" helps me keep up with the latest music trends. "This American Life" is sometimes goofy, other times serious, always unpredictable. And I would be lost without the "Sunday Puzzle" podcast. I tend to have way more stuff on hand than I can ever catch up with, but that's a good thing. If I am using the sewing machine or doing housework, listening to such shows really makes the work go faster.

Being retired, I am guilty of taking the need to keep my mind challenged, so the podcasts help to flood my brain with new information, in addition, of course, to reading books, magazines and newspapers. I also enjoy attending lectures at the Jung Center of Houston. Right now I am attending a four week poetry lecture, "Singers of the Soul: Five Poets Who Sing What Matters Most" given by Jungian analyst James Hollis. It always feels great to sit down and listen to his multi-layered interpretations of any topic. When I attend lectures, I have to take notes. Whether I will ever read them again or not, it doesn't matter, it just feels good to make that ear-to-mind-to-hand connection. Maybe I like feeling like a student again, for hopefully we are never done learning!

I also attend lectures at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Jewish Community Center. Last but not least, when time and finances allow, I enjoy attending Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) programs, always a good mix of travel, education and recreation. I hope none of this sounds like bragging -- I don't mean it that way. I am grateful for everything I have mentioned, and just wanted to give humble thanks for the many ways culture and media supply me with content. If you have any suggestions for my "hungry ears", please leave a comment!

collage by KAO: "Grace Notes"

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Travel Buffet of Books

When I travel, nothing I pack seems more important than books. When I fly, I always make sure I have two in my carry-on luggage since nothing is worse than running out of reading material. Obviously, I haven't made to switch to an e-reader yet (maybe some day). Here are short blurbs about four of the books I read on a recent trip to NY. Looking for a metaphor to describe this assortment of books, I kept thinking of a Dagwood sandwich -- everything but the kitchen sink went into this reading feast. If so, the bread was the nonfiction Alzheimer's book. It kept me grounded. Most substantial lterary protein was probably the Freudenberger novel, followed by  Carlson-Voiles' fine YA book. And the relish would have to come from Jennifer Weiner, sweet and spicy. Interesting how varigated our reading tastes can be. My moods change quickly and I can't stay with one genre or subject. All these books hit the spot!

Journalist Lauren Kessler takes a minimum wage job in a memory care facility, and learns most everything there is for a layperson to know about Alzheimer's. She also starts to care deeply. Her own mother went through dementia in the last years of her life, and Kessler felt she never dealt with it then, so her foray into this field serves purposes of both mind and heart. I passed this book on to my mother's live-in health aide, and also hope my brother will read it soon. Dancing with Rose: Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer's was published by Viking in 2007 and remains one of those word-of-mouth books everyone tells you to read if Alzheimer's touches your life.

Got my galley of Summer of the Wolves Houghton Mifflin, 2012) by Polly Carlson-Voiles at the TLA conference  a couple of months ago. Intended for ages 10 - 14, but that didn't matter to me. Strong writing & characterization, with lots of good factual background. Plot elements that spoke to me: orphans, wolves, Minnesota; need I say more? 

If you enjoyed The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, you'll probably enjoy The Newlyweds (Knopf, 2012) by Nell Freudenberger. Here the wife-to-be moves from Bangladesh to Rochester, NY, having met her husband-to-be online. She is Muslim, he is not. Can this marriage succeed? Perhaps a little overwritten, but I persevered and was glad I did. 

Then Came You (Washington Square Press, 2011) by Jennifer Weiner was an impulse buy at the airport, and really kept me entertained on my flight home. An emotionally-laden tale of surrogacy, involving a college student who sells her eggs, the woman who carries the baby, the wealthy wife who hopes this baby will cement her marriage to a wealthy man, and her step-daughter who suspects the worst of new new stepmother's motives. Get out your hanky....

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Quiltesque Collage

Lots of "quiltesque" motifs have turned up in my collage work recently. I find collage more instantly gratifying than quilting, though I do love both art forms. Using fabric scans and ruffle-like or stichery embellishments in collage compositions comes naturally.

"Pilgrimage" is a mixed media collage on wood, and is on display at the Transcendence show at the Houston Jung Center through July 17, 2012. I used colored telephone wire as an interconnecting device, giving this composition some three dimensionality.

"Holding Still at the Center" was completed in 2011. Being in some ways balanced and centered, in my mind it has some mandala qualities, but also uses obvious quilting elements along with vintage advertising cuts.

"Quiltscape 4", completed a month or so ago, uses mostly fabric elements with some decorative papers. These kinds of collages are relaxing for me in their very sweetness, though many would not consider them as high art. But you know what? That doesn't matter to me most of the time.

"The Quilter" ties in with my old Dollscape series. I used a small scrapbook punch to make the tiny squares. Sometimes it is tricky getting such elements balanced and straight, just like in quilting.

And so it goes. I don't have as much time as I might like to learn new collage techniques, but these types of collages have become a staple in my life. I intend to learn more about mixed media, including acrylic painting, encaustics and digital collage. For the time being, cut and paste will have to do. I find myself flying to Long Island quite often to visit my 93 year-old mother. Perhaps if I could make progress on learning Photoshop, I will be able to do collage on my laptop when I travel. It has been very rewarding to reconnect with collage during retirement. I think I made my first collage in junior high school, and on and off since then, but at this point I am more involved than ever. I gave a collage workshop at a Unitarian Universalist women's conference in Clear Lake this past winter, and enjoyed sharing this "quiltesque" take on collage with them.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Our Nashville Road Trip

Our road trip to Nashville was an arduous one! We drove to Nashville in one day, visited with relatives for three days (including attending a high school graduation), and returned on the fifth day. About a fourteen hour drive (groan) from Houston, but with plenty of laughs along the way. We rented a van and all piled in together, which made for lots of family fun. Here are some of my photos from the trip.

We enjoyed walking around the Music District on a Saturday night with hundreds of other tourists, where the sounds of live music came pouring out of every other door we passed. I bet this particular signage and the statue of Elvis in front of one of the souvenir stores are among the most photographed images tourists shoot.

 We also visited the new Nashville Antique Archeology store, where it was a thrill to actually see some of the finds we saw Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz pick on their History Channel show, Pickers.

Since I can't post an actual photo of my wonderful niece, here is her self portrait, included in her kindergarten year notebook from USN (University School of Nashville).

Our nephew, Takuma Johnson, was part of a architectural design team awarded with the opportunity to build a structure for the Treehouse exhibit at Cheekwood Botanical Garden. His was the only team that included high school students! All the treehouses were related to works of literature. Seen from one side above, "Up and Down Again" is based on The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Takuma heads off to Cornell University this fall to study architecture.

 Everyone enjoyed the slide that was part of of the Up and Down Again structure.

It was hard for me to capture the whole Treehouse in one shot, partly because the site was mobbed with visitors. Here my brother-in-law Mike stands under an arch surveying one of the interesting nooks built into the structure, which was part playhouse/climbing structure/slide, part garden and also included a bridge. None of the houses were actually nailed to a tree, since that would have been destructive, but they all were sited near a tree. To quote from the Cheekwood brochure about the exhibit, "There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something." - from The Hobbit, 1937.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

My Three Year Retire-versary

Indulge me in a bit of personal reflection on my third anniversary of retirement from Harris County Public Library. This past weekend I enjoyed volunteering at the West University Library's Friends of the Library book sale. Just two hours or so of involvment with people and books, most specifically and especially, with former customers, was both fun and fulfilling. It made me realize what I miss most about my job is "what have you read lately?" chit-chat with fellow bibliophiles. Also, even though I was a library manager, I never minded shelving books, especially fiction, where every shelf invited memories of novels I once enjoyed. Just seeing their familiar spines spelled contentment. But am I longing to go back to work? No way. There's more than enough to do in my life to keep me 110% busy. My reach always seems to exceed my grasp.

Family, friends, making art, gardening, yoga, swimming, walking, biking, quilting, cooking, writing book reviews for Library Journal and facilitating a group called Creative Intentions on the Here Women Talk website, book group, fiber arts group, Sunday UU women's native American spirituality circle: these things form the foundation of my days. Sounds idyllic, but life is never 100% rainbows. My mother, who is 93, and still living semi-independently, directly and indirectly demands a lot of my attention. Just last week I returned from Long Island after visiting her and hiring a 24 hour live-in aide now needed to keep Mom safe at home. 

Because my life feels so busy, I had to cut back on my blogging frequency here at Speed of Light. Twice a month feels about right now. Just like when you are employed, even in retirement, life is a balancing act. I wish I could find more time to really commune with nature, especially rivers and oceans. My husband and I own a canoe that we hope to launch next month. Right now my best connection with nature comes through backyard gardening. We have Juliet, Yellow Pear and Homestead tomatoes coming in. There is always plenty to do in the yard, but I would love to see more of the American West. Someday I hope to cross all 50 states off my lifetime travel list. I also have hopes of becoming a labyrinth facilitator when I can afford the time and money to enroll in a Veriditas training course. For all my hopes and blessings, I am grateful. Staying fit is very important, as are friends, intellectual activities and so-called "down time", a commodity I always seem to be short of. And so it goes... L'chaim!

collage: Alive by KAO

Friday, April 27, 2012

Printmaking with PrintMatters via the Steamroller Method

On April 15th, I participated in the PrintMatters Rockin' Rollin' Steamroller Print event. End result: my 30 x 36" "Get Thee to the Labyrinth" print. I carved it on MDF board using hand tools. Some artists used electric Dremel tools. I had done some printmaking in college, but not much since then, so it was a real learning experience.

My husband helped with the geometry involved in getting the classic 11 circuit Chartres labyrinth drawn onto the board, and then I went to work. If I had it to do over again, I might have done some things differently. Honestly, I think it looks a little amateurish, but I guess I'll have to live with it. A steamroller was used as the printing press in this second annual event. We attended last year's steamroller event and right then and there, I resolved to get involved. There was plenty to do ferrying the prints upstairs to hang in the beer hall at St. Arnold's Brewery (an interesting location). The day was hot and humid, but we got the job done. In June we will have an exhibit at Gallery M Squared. I hope eventually to donate copies of this print to labyrinth organizations.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Upheaval: Wherein the Spirit of the Earth Mother Discovers the Truth Inside Us, a Novel by Joel Machak

Remember when we were all reading The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel? Young heroines wearing animal skins became all the rage. Then as Auel's series continued, many readers drifted away. I did too. I opened Upheaval: Wherein the Spirit of the Earth Mother Discovers the Truth Inside Us All, a Novel (Xlibris, 2011) by Joel Machak, only knowing there would be Native American content, intrigued that the Earth Mother might be a character. Taking place some 950 years ago in the Arizona wilderness, the novel immediately grabbed me with its purity of place and time.

Volcanic activity has recently occurred. The native peoples are fleeing, warring, killing and starving. One young woman remains strong. She has two names. Her common name is Ayasha. Her other name is Nokomis, Earth Mother. Don't ask how or why. Just read it and you will believe it. Her primordial wisdom is always there. In this post-apocalyptic setting, readers immediately sense that she is very much alone. Yet she survives well, living in a cave usually used for drying pottery. The tribe to whom she was an outsider are gone, including the medicine man who once nurtured her soul. Not long into the novel, along comes another outsider, a restless young man named Ahote. He comes from another region, carrying his well made bow and arrows, looking to avenge the slaughter of all his tribe.

How these two characters interact, the many dangers and challenges they face kept me rapt with attention and concern. Can Nokomis persuade Ahote there is more to life than revenge? Although at times he is very much her acolyte (so was I!), he is also deeply disturbed by her powers, her beauty, her deep wisdom. Backed into the cave by a bear, attacked by marauders, will Nokomis and Ahote survive to tell their tale? There is so much at stake. How and why Nokomis would consider making the choice to be more earthly than cosmic creates spiritual suspense, if there can be such a thing.....

Quoting the back cover: "...the two discover the power of second chances and finally unravel the greatest puzzle of them all: the human heart. Discover the truth inside you." I can not overstate the uniqueness of this wonderful novel. It is unlike anything else I have ever read. If I were Hollywood, I would quickly come calling upon Joel Machak. Upheaval would make a great screenplay! Yes, I admit I met the author once socially. He is the good friend of a good friend of mine. His imagination deserves a wide audience. I will be buying additional copies to share with family and friends. Upheaval is the sort of book you feel you just have to pass along.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


More because of their round leaves than their bright flowers, I have always loved nasturtiums. Every leaf is a little different, never perfectly round. They remind me of sand dollars or water lily pads. Reading about nasturtiums on Wikipedia, I learned that the correct terminology for such leaves is "peltate", meaning shield-shaped. Nasturtiums are native to South and Central America.

They do well in Houston in the spring before the insufferable humid heat of summer arrives,or can be planted in the fall for color over mild winters. This year I used a variety pack of seeds from Renee's Garden, not really thinking about what that meant. While most of the plants come in at 6 - 12", others have yet to reach their final dimensions, displaying viney qualities I never knew were possible. One vine in the backyard is crawling over a 8' tall lemon tree, and that's not including its place of origin in a large pot, so possibly it is as long as 14'. Monster nasturtiums! Plus they are making lots of seeds, so maybe next year I can cover the planet in nasturtiums.

This intriguing flower and its leaves are edible, but a bit spicy, and are best pulled apart into small pieces and mixed in with sweeter greens. I've never put them on a cake but maybe I will this Easter as I certainly have plenty to spare. I've just learned that the seeds can be used as a substitute for capers. They are also great companion flowers as they repel various insects such as cucumber beetles. That's it for my quick roundup on all things nasturtium... If you are a gardener, happy spring planting and let's hope for an easy summer ahead!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Visiting the Varner-Hogg Plantation, West Columbia, TX

Kitchens are my favorite rooms to see when visiting historic homes. Our tour guide at the Varner-Hogg Plantation in West Columbia saved the best for last when he took us into the large kitchen, leading us on by asking us to guess what the oldest thing in the room was. Not the cook stove, not the cast iron pots. No, it was the kneading table shown above, exact date of origin unknown, but easily well before 1776, this low table doubles its usefulness with a trough below designed as a place to put the dough while it was rising, something I found most ingenious.

I've always liked round convex mirrors (often associated with the Federal period of architecture), but now I know some of the reasoning behind their design. Their rounded-out surface reflects three times the candlelight that would have been the only lighting in the days before electricity.

Seen in the painting above, Ima Hogg (1882 - 1975) was the beloved doyenne of decorative arts in the Houston area. Her father, James ("Big Jim") Hogg (1851 - 1906) was the 20th Governor of the state of Texas and bought the plantation in West Columbia in 1901. The family used it mostly as a summer house (their main home being Bayou Bend in River Oaks, Houston) and as a place to entertain. During the span of the plantation's lifetime, several families owned it and is was put to use for cotton and sugar cane farming, and after Mr. Hogg died, oil was found there, the basis for much of the Hogg family wealth. A large pecan tree orchard on the plantation still operates on sort of a sharecropping philosophy; in the fall, visitors can register to pick up the fallen nuts to share 50/50 with the Texas Historical Commission, which operates the historical site.

My husband and I have resolved to take one day trip per month. We'll see if that is a doable resolution, but there are plenty of sights unseen to us in Houston's surrounding counties. Since Tom is a cabinetmaker, he especially enjoys seeing the workmanship evident in historic homes. Best book for dreaming up day trips (even though some of the restaurants listed are long gone): Shifra Stein's Day Trips from Houston: Getaways Less Than Two Hours Away (GPP Travel, 2008) by Carol Barrington.

3 of 4 photos by KAO

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Think Jack London meets Alice Hoffman. The Snow Child (Little, Brown and Company, 2012) by Eowyn Ivey is a both a tale of Alaskan survival and a gossamer white wonderland of magical realism. I did not want to let this book go back to the library after I finished it. I wanted to hug it to myself, but then again, might that have melted the girl known as the snow child?

When we first meet the red-mittened little girl, she seems to be the sisterly incarnation of a snow sculpture built by Jack and Mabel, newbie Alaskan homesteaders, facing a tough winter during the 1920s. Mabel has never gotten over the loss of their stillborn baby and feels near suicidal. When a little sprite with blond hair begins to dance in and out of the forest surrounding their cabin, who knows if she is real? No one, including her husband believes Mabel's tales. But Mabel's heart has turned over and she is happy beyond belief to start nurturing the snow child in whatever way she can. At this point, I was unsure myself if the child was real, and it caused a fine air of suspense.

I'll give you this much: yes, the girl is real. Her name is Faina. She lives by her wits. She knows how to hunt and forage. She has raised a red fox from puppyhood. When Faina starts to spend time with Mabel and Jack (he comes to love her, too), threads of familial feelings grow amongst them. Mabel and Jack also make friends with a couple named Esther and George. One of their sons becomes Jack's helper. And so before our eyes, community is built, warm fires lit and many winters survived. Whenever Faina disappears for a season or two, as she is want to do, readers will worry, spellbound. What is to become of Faina. Can such a wild child be tamed? Should she be tamed? What kind of woman will she become? Read it and see.....

Eowyn Ivey is a native Alaskan and it shows. She has worked as a reporter and bookseller. I love the poetic sound of her name. She is named her after a Lord of the Rings Tolkien character. She and her husband are raising their children out in the Alaskan wilderness. I can't wait to see what Eowyn Ivey writes next!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Experiments in Layered Photography

I've been playing with layering photography using my Paint Shop Pro software. Lots to learn yet! It is fun to see how photos combine with drawings, collages and fabric scans. So far the results often have a batik-like effect. I may embellish some of these images further by printing them on fabric and adding embroidery, etc., or use them in mixed media compositions.

As some of my friends and family know, I've been in NY visiting my mother, who suffered a fall in her home last week. No bones were broken, but she had a bad nosebleed. Somehow this led to a six day hospital stay and now she is in a nursing center for physical therapy. We are hoping she can regain her strength and return home soon. Playing with Paint Shop Pro on my laptop while doing bedside duty has been a welcome diversion. I have been browsing through my photo files using Picasa, and making lists of images to play with. As always, thanks for taking a look at my artwork!