Friday, July 31, 2009

Savoring Good Food--The Glory of Vegetables

In the supermarket this morning, I was struck with deep gratitude--as I often am--for the bounty of healthful foods available to us. Mark and I truly love fruits and vegetables and eat more of them than any other two people I know. We buy produce in bulk at a warehouse store and never waste a bite of it. Especially for those of us who have traveled to other regions of the world, we know that the variety of affordable produce available in the United States is a rare gift. Taking advantage of this wonderful food is part of healthful, creative living in our home.
Although we like to "eat locally" and understand the many benefits of doing that, I confess that we also sometimes savor fruits and vegetables that are out of season in Florida and are grateful for them. We are also aware of the people right here in the United States who are not able to afford this healthful bounty for their families. The Second Harvest Food Bank in our part of town, where we serve periodically, has some tireless volunteers who make extra trips every week to gather donated fresh produce (usually near its sell-by date) for the families we serve. They have brought in everything from lush heads of broccoli to juicy fresh strawberries and raspberries. It is a joy to be able to provide these treats to our hard-working neighbors who need them.
For those of us who may at times enjoy too much food, fruits and vegetables are varied, flavor-filled, satisfying treats we can enjoy almost without limit. I remember a Woman's Day magazine article several years back that recommended an "eat more" plan to control one's weight during the treacherous November-early January season. I think it was a six-week plan with a particular food group to add to menus each week from mid-November on. Fun idea, no?--adding food instead of self-deprivation. Each week's food group was healthful and filling so that it would be easier to avoid over-eating the rich treats of the season. I tried it and actually lost a couple of pounds while feeling that I was eating more than usual--much more pleasant than trying to deny myself during the holidays! Although I don't remember the entire program, the first week called for increasing the number of vegetable and fruit servings every day. Then in subsequent weeks, one added more servings of whole grains, lean protein foods, low-fat dairy, and two other categories I have forgotten (it's unlikely I followed the entire program--it was too much food for me!).
I know that sounds pretty much like current basic dietary recommendations, but was an innovative program when it was published. Even though our family eating habits had been relatively healthful before then, I enjoyed the plan and certain changes became a permanent part of life after that. And we have never felt better, maintained our weight more easily, or enjoyed meals more.
The difficulty for many of us is finding the time for cooking "from scratch". I don't have much wisdom to share in that regard because I truly enjoy planning and cooking meals and have always found a way no matter how many other tasks I juggled. Having sons accustomed to doing their part (when they were younger and lived with us) and a husband who always cleans up the kitchen after me has lightened the cooking load, too. And, yes, I know how fortunate I am to have their help. For what they are worth, I'll share a couple of tips from my veggie-loving kitchen: keep a platter of colorful raw vegetables with a clear cover in the refrigerator and form a habit of snacking on them often, plan meals not by thinking of the entree first but by checking the produce bins and using each fresh food at its peak, cook up a big vegetable dish like ratatouille when you have time and freeze portions for busy nights in the future, and finally, (a habit the boys still tease me about--although I think they secretly enjoy it) serve as many natural colors as possible each day since they each have different essential nutrients.
Question of the day: What is your favorite vegetable dish? What is your newest vegetable discovery (a delicious food you had not eaten until recently)?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Exploring and Learning--Landscape Painting--Hanna Park Heron

Last post, I showed you a reference photo for a possible painting--a quick, drive-by snapshot of a great blue heron at Hanna Park Lake here in Jacksonville, Florida. As I studied that photo and others taken that day of the heron, the lake, and the surrounding trees, I knew that I could base a painting on them. But, just how should I compose the scene?
In the June 17 post, I described the creative process involved in a different painting and my difficulties choosing the focal area for the piece. Unlike that project, this painting had an unmistakable focal point. In spite of the appeal of dark, shimmering water, tall palm trunks, and jungle-like vegetation, the heron clearly draws the eye of the viewer. I felt certain, in fact, that the heron itself knew that he (or possibly she) had no competition for the starring role in this little tableau.
In preliminary sketches, the main issues I worked on concerned how to arrange the elements--how much yellowed grass in the foreground? where to place the major horizontal elements? how much vegetation area in comparison to the water? And of course, just where to place the heron? In the photo, it is too near the center and is looking out of the scene--clearly unsatisfactory. Some of the other elements could stay more or less as they were in the photo.
The major change from the photo to the painting may not be immediately obvious. I decided to move the sun. The relatively short time we spent at the lake that day gave me no choice about the lighting, and I took photos with a bright overhead sun. However, I wanted more dramatic shadows in the painting and moved the sun, first to a point low in the sky behind the background trees and palmettos. Then, halfway through the painting, I moved it again--higher in the sky to the viewer's right. 
What fun! There is such power in creative projects--I can move the sun itself. However, the fact that I changed the light source as I worked caused a fair amount of readjustment in the painting along the way, as you artist readers can well imagine. Luckily, working in acrylics allows me to paint over nearly anything, which saves me and my paintings every time. Such changes are more difficult or even impossible in some other media. 
You will notice other differences from the reference photo. The background vegetation gradually took on a life of its own and became a sort of jungle fantasy instead of a literal rendering of what I had seen. Also, I realized late in the process that the varied greens in the background, despite touches of blue, yellow, and rusty browns, needed to be broken up by some other color. Given that there were winter-bare branches and dead trees nearby, I felt free to add a few fallen branches and to import a pair of dead trees from another scene. They might look familiar to my regular readers--do you remember the post about an outing with my good friend Dee that yielded the reference photo for these trees? They help the overall composition in more than one way, I think, as they also echo the grey tones of the heron and add one other distinct vertical. 
This work-in-progress is not yet signed although I feel quite satisfied with it. The final version may be slightly revised, but I like it as it is and may leave it unchanged. On my computer screen, the colors do not appear nearly as deep as they are in the painting, especially the dark tones--I hope you can get a sense of the way it actually looks. 
Question of the day: When you pursue a creative endeavor, do you normally begin with a clear vision of the final outcome and then create that? Or do your creations change along the way? Are you comfortable and flexible if your original vision changes as you work?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Exploring--Right Near Home--Hanna Park

In my April 23 post, I wrote about the curious fact that many of us neglect interesting destinations near our homes. When we travel, we seek out the parks, botanical gardens, historical homes, birding sites, or whatever other types of attractions most interest us. Yet, we let our home lives get "too busy" to play tourist in our own cities, parks, countryside, and historic places.
Here in Jacksonville, Florida, we are fortunate to enjoy visits from a number of house guests who are eager to see the fascinating history and varied natural beauty the area offers. Entertaining visitors provides the perfect excuse to play tourist right here at home. As a painter of local landscapes, I explore often--with or without visitors. Of course, I carry a camera on these outings, alert for possible subjects for landscape paintings. I have written about the joy of exploring near home in several previous posts and have another lovely spot to show you today.
When my husband's youngest brother from Wisconsin came in March, we went to Hanna Park, which I had not visited before. Maintained by our city, this lovely park provides 450 wonderful acres to explore for an admission price of just $1. Its ocean beach, fresh water lake, trails, wildlife, and wonderful vegetation were just waiting to show off for us. The day we visited, this stately great blue heron stood watchfully at the edge of the lake. I was able to snap a few quick photos out the car window from a couple of different angles. Although they were not carefully composed photos, I believed that a painting might emerge from these quick snapshots. The photo above became the main reference for a painting I have almost finished. Note: remember that you can always click on a photo in the blog to enlarge it. 
In the next post, I will show you the painting that resulted. In the meantime, I will leave you with a question like one I posed on June 12 about choices in the artistic process.
Question of the day: If you painted, drew, or more carefully photographed this scene, what elements in the photo would you use? What elements might you feature, change, or delete? 

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Exploring & Growing--Landscape Painting, Jacksonville Beach scene

I have showed you some of my landscape paintings in previous posts and have described the creative process for each. If you wish to see them, you can view posts from June 12 & 17 and May 1 & 7 or simply enter "landscape painting" in the search box above. The June entries showed how my individual composition decisions used and yet modified the scene in the original reference photo. 
I have a painting of a grey heron at a lake in Hanna Park, here in Jacksonville, Florida almost finished and am excited that I will be showing it to you soon. That painting also grew away from the original reference photo as I worked and struggled with the vision I had for it. Although I am very happy with each of those finished pieces, I can recall vividly how I despaired along the way, wondering why the painting refused to gel--why it seemed determined to remain clumsy and unsatisfactory.
Today's painting is a different case. Although you will see differences--a painter almost never simply copies nature, this photo and painting are more closely related than usually happens. Exploring Jacksonville Beach with our little beach-loving Shih-Tzu one mild late winter day, I saw early flowers blooming by a white concrete fence. I took several photos and decided that the one above would make a lovely medium-sized painting. It required minor adjustments only to make a painting I am very fond of. Some paintings require extensive sketching, planning, adjusting, and revising to grow into a vision I like. Then again, sometimes, all I need to do is to observe nature and go with the flow.
Question of the day: When creativity comes easily, do you ever wish it happened that way every time? Would that really be for the best?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Savoring Our Home--Creative Use of Space--Art Studio

The reason my last post said that you might chuckle when I showed you my new art studio is that it is located . . . in our master bathroom! Again, I must credit my caring and creative husband for this genius, though unorthodox, idea. He also did much of the preliminary work to create the space for me. That was no hardship for him, however; give Mark a sledge hammer and something to demolish, and he is a happy guy.
Previously, I had been painting in the kitchen and frequently taking down and putting up all my gear because it was in the way otherwise. Workable, but not great, especially as I began to paint more and more often. Also, the large west-facing window often required the unsatisfactory choice of either enduring a glare on my work or closing the blinds.
We had planned some fairly extensive work in our master bath anyway, had the money saved up and our plans in the works. One day this plan came together in Mark's mind with his concern that I needed a painting studio. In our down-sized home, the master bedroom is a comfortably large enough room without being over-sized, and the master bath & walk-in closet are exceptionally large for this size house. Like many master bathrooms, it boasted a huge so-called garden tub which I had used only once in the six plus years we have lived here. When filling it completely drained a good-sized water heater, I decided that using it was WAY too wasteful. There is a normal tub/shower combo in the second bathroom for my occasional soaks.
The garden tub was set into a 5' X 8' nook around the corner from the shower stall with a wonderful, large, north-facing (perfect for painters) window. I won't take you through all the stages of the decision-making process, but simply will say that the sledge hammer performed its magic, and I gained a lovely art studio. For quite awhile, I used it with wall board patches around the tub area, the original ugly wallpaper above that, and an exposed concrete floor beneath (we tore out the worn carpet from that area--why would anyone carpet a bathroom?). It worked great, but was not very attractive, as you can imagine.
Now, we have completed remodeling the master bath and are delighted with the results. Large stone-look porcelain floor tiles laid on the diagonal unify the bath, little toilet room, and closet; the walls are a tranquil, warm caramelly color; we raised the vanity (which did not need replacing) to a more comfortable height on a plinth base (Mark and a handyman did that together) and gave it a new terra cotta colored counter top with vanilla sinks. I apologize if this is more information than you are interested in, patient readers. It's just that I am truly thrilled with our new master bath/art studio.
Question of the day: What has been your most unusual, creative use of space to make your home function uniquely well for you?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Savoring Our Home--Creative Use of Space--Home Office

For a change of pace, we are back to hearth and home. I wanted to share my awesome, space-saving desk with you. We have discovered some very creative ways to use space in our down-sized home. My two favorites are this custom-made workstation and my painting studio. I'll show you the studio next time. You'll be amazed--and it may give you a chuckle, too.
Twice in our lives, we have chosen to move from fairly large homes to much smaller ones. Each time, we got rid of all the stuff that accumulates when there is always plenty of room for more. Each time, we felt younger and lighter on life's journey after paring down to the possessions we most needed and cared about.
However, living in a dramatically smaller space requires adjustment as well. For example, moving in semi-retirement from a large Atlanta home to a perfect-for-two North Florida home left me without an office of my own. My husband had visions of happily sharing the small third bedroom as a family den/office. He reckoned without the extent to which his need for order clashed with my ten books and twenty projects at once clutter. We coped while he looked for a better way.
His creative genius led to the suggestion that one end of our kitchen, where we kept a narrow bookshelf and an old TV set (TV still there, as you can see) had room for a desk for me. I was skeptical. The kitchen is not large to begin with, and we ate many of our meals at a small table on that end. Also, the generous side window extended to within 22" of the wall--how could that be enough room?
Well, we mused, looked at ready-made desks (none right for the space), and planned until we had figured out the basic design for the office nook pictured above. A retired gentleman turned genius cabinet maker constructed and installed my dream desk and bookshelves. Six roomy file cabinets hold all my projects; numerous small and large drawers, some with built in dividers, hold papers and supplies; a slide-out keyboard shelf serves my computer needs. And whatever is cooking (I call cooking my other art form) is only steps away. What could be better?
Today, it is hard to imagine how unlikely an office location this seemed at first--or that we had actually contemplated adding a small room onto the house for an office/studio for Mary. The space we have is more than enough. It just needed creative re-purposing.
Question of the day: What change in the use of your space has brought you the most satisfaction?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Learning and Exploring--Travel Tips, Part I & Croatia photos

Before I leave the topic of travel, here are a few travel tips from our experience. I hope something we have learned over the years about creative travel may enrich an upcoming journey for you. Also, I hope you will share some of your favorite tips for memorable travel. This is the first of several occasional "travel tips" posts.
1.  Be flexible. Nothing goes exactly according to plan, especially travel. So lighten up and go with the flow (and other relevant cliches you might add). 
In my previous post about Zagreb, Croatia, I described a delightful morning my husband and I spent in a city that was not on our itinerary. We simply made good use of a few hours between transportation connections. Many of our memorable travel moments have emerged from unplanned events--even upsetting ones, like missing a train or the breakdown of a rental car. If you find yourself with down time, or stranded or lost somewhere, look around you; ask what there is to see or do; get on a bus, subway, or into a taxi and enjoy the unplanned travel opportunity.
Note that this is easier to do if you travel light. I will post our packing tips and what we have learned from packing mistakes in the next travel tip post.
2.  Plan what you will do if you are lost. This flows from #1, but is not the same. I have been lost in many places and have made delightful discoveries every time. However, it is not fun to feel helpless in a strange place. So, assume you might get lost and be prepared. 
In 1984, I was privileged to travel with a people-to-people exchange group to the Soviet Union. Our hosts there gave us information cards for each hotel along our way, and they reminded us to carry the cards and adequate cab fare at all times. (Since the Soviet government rigidly regulated fares, this was a relatively modest and predictable amount--not true in every country--find out in advance how to avoid getting ripped off). This way, we had something to show a bus or cab driver, and the language barrier was less fearful. We could always get back where we belonged.
Even though we were with guides most of the time, people can get separated from a group. We also had some free time, providing humbling opportunities to be mystified by signs in a language, even an alphabet, that was unfamiliar to most of us. The hotel card with address and phone number provided peace of mind for me as I happily rode Moscow's excellent subway system, strolled in lovely St. Petersburg (called Leningrad then) and other cities, and cheerfully risked getting lost in search of interesting experiences.
This sensible and thoughtful gift from our Soviet hosts taught me to carry along a card or note with the location of our lodgings, written by a local if possible, whenever I travel. Of course, we also carry a guidebook and map (well, at least most of the time), but having a "please return me to my temporary home" card is priceless for peace of mind and freedom to wander.
In a few weeks and every now and then after that, I will post more travel tips. Please let me know whether or not they are useful. 
The photos above show the beautiful city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, a popular travel destination on the Adriatic Coast--as seen from the top of the wall around the old city. After several posts about less-travelled Croatian destinations, I thought that you might like a glimpse of this lovely coast, which I keep mentioning but not showing you. If you are interested in catching up on previous posts about travel, just enter "travel" or "Eastern Europe" in the search box above.
Question of the day: What is your advice for taking advantage of unplanned or unfortunate travel events?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Exploring--Zagreb, Croatia's Capital City--An Unplanned Travel Bonus

This will be my third post about non-typical destinations in Croatia. Although Zagreb is Croatia's capital city, its location away from the famed Adriatic Coast means that relatively few travelers see the city.
We had not planned to visit Zagreb either, but had a lovely morning there as an unplanned bonus due to plane and train schedules. When our 2 week Rick Steves tour of Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia ended in the breath-taking, walled coastal city of Dubrovnik, we were at the far southern tip of Croatia with a long journey ahead of us. From there, we visited Krakow, Poland (including an unforgettable time at Auschwitz) and Budapest, Hungary on our own. The most convenient and affordable connections I had been able to arrange started with an early morning flight from Dubrovnik to Zagreb, then continued by train. Since we had several hours between our arrival at Zagreb's airport and departure by train, we made the best of the time by seeing Zagreb's center city.
Train travel in Europe abounds with similar serendipitous opportunities. Many European train stations, including those in Eastern Europe, are centrally located and offer inexpensive luggage lockers. So, that Sunday morning, we took a quick cab ride from the Zagreb airport to the train station, stowed our luggage in a locker, verified our train connection, and strolled a few park-lined blocks to a main square. Worshippers were streaming into the Neo-Gothic Catholic Cathedral, so we joined them, slipping in near the back for an uplifting treat. Croatia has a proud tradition of choral music, especially robust men's choral music, and deep, rich harmonies echoed in the vast cathedral--truly a universal spiritual language. 
Across from the church, the market was in full swing below the old city tower (see photo above). We relished the fragrant flowers, plump produce, and hand-crafted items, choosing freshly baked rolls, salami, cheese, tomatoes, and fruits for the long train journey ahead.
With almost an hour to spare, we strolled through an extensive, free, university-run botanical garden that our Rick Steves Eastern Europe guidebook had recommended. A colorful variety of early fall flowers were in bloom, while green houses boasted more exotic specimens. The two photos above only hint at the beauty--given our limited time, I took very few photos in Zagreb--mostly just breathed in the unplanned treat of a lovely, relaxing morning in a city that had not even been on our original itinerary.
We can recall similar times on other journeys. At times, even delays or cancellations that seemed disappointing at first turned into travel bonuses when we looked around creatively and took advantage of our surroundings.
Question of the day: What travel layover or delay did you turn into a memorable unplanned travel bonus?