Flower of May: Sweet Woodruff

Excerpt from the May Day holiday e-book:

Sweet woodruff (galium odoratum) is one of my favorite plants. It is a low-lying ground cover with narrow dark-green leaves that grow in whorls around a central stem. It blooms around the first of May: small white flowers with four petals. Woodruff grows best in shade; mine is happy in a part of my garden which is rather moist. In Germany, it is called Waldmeister (master of the forest).

Woodruff does not have a strong fragrance until picked. But once dried, it develops a wonderful sweet aroma, a mixture of hay and vanilla. The scent comes from coumarin, a fragrant chemical also found in melilot and tonka beans. Coumarin is also an anti-coagulant and is used in blood-thinning medication.

Because of the presence of coumarin, the FDA only permits the use of sweet woodruff in alcoholic beverages (does that make sense?). Apparently large quantities have been known to cause vomiting and dizziness. It is probably best not to consume woodruff if pregnant or taking anti-coagulants.

Folk remedies call for the application of woodruff to fresh wounds; Rose speculates this would have kept the blood from clotting and prevent infection. Sweet woodruff was also made into a medicinal tea which soothed the stomach. It was recommended for heart and liver problems. The dried herb is wonderful for scenting potpourris, can be stuffed into sachets and tucked between linens to scent them. It is used to flavor May wine but it also has a reputation for provoking lechery, which may be another reason for its association with May Day.

Woodruff can be grown easily from starts. Mine came from my mentor and friend Helen Farias. Just dig up a little clump, roots and all. Plant it where it will get shade and its roots will stay moist. The plant spreads rapidly but is not invasive.

During my experiments with capturing the scent of plants, I was most successful with sweet woodruff. I let it sit in jojoba oil for about a week and now the oil is delicately flavored with that dry hay/tobacco/vanilla scent that I associate with lying in the grass at midsummer.

Image Credits:

The illustration comes from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany. The photo was released into the public domain by the photographer. I found it at Wikipedia.

First published April 19, 2010

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May Wine

Excerpt from the May Day holiday e-book

May Wine is served on May Day. In Germany, May Wine is the quintessential summer drink. It is usually flavored with Sweet Woodruff (Waldmeister or Maikraut), perhaps because it improves the taste of thin, new wine. May wine is also the name for any wine punch flavored with herbs, fruits, berries and occasionally flowers.

To make May wine, pick sweet woodruff that does not have open blossoms several days before you want to serve the wine. Tie the stems with cotton thread and hang until dry so the sweet vanilla scent of the herb emerges. Then immerse the dried herb in a bottle of wine, usually Rhine wine, although Adelma Grenier Simmons uses champagne or a mixture of half Rhine wine and half champagne.

Some recipes advise you to leave the woodruff in the wine for days, even weeks. Others suggest removing it after ten or fifteen minutes, probably because woodruff contains coumarin, an anticoagulant and may cause headaches. However, it is probably not dangerous, unless you are pregnant or taking anticoagulants.

Michael Moore, writing about Northwest medicinal plants, suggests using vanilla leaf, another herb containing coumarin, to create a substitute for Polish sweet vodka, by putting a handful of the dried leaves in a fifth of vodka and steeping it for at least a month. He says it gives a nice green tint to the vodka, as well as a sweet flavor. Anyone want to try this with woodruff?

And Adelma Grenier Simmons says that a German friend of hers steeps woodruff in brandy year round, then adds the flavored brandy to the May wine. I have to say a little bit of woodruff goes a long way, and I probably wouldn’t leave it steeping in the brandy for much more than a week. Woodruff can also be used in the same way to flavor milk or apple juice if you prefer a non-alcoholic May drink.

The traditional Mai Bowle also has strawberries in it. Simmons garnishes her May bowl with fresh woodruff, Johnny jump-ups and violets. In Germany, the Mai Bowle is served every day during the month of May.

You can find more May Day food ideas, including a special minestrone and frittata served for May Day in Italy and a yogurt dish served for Hidrellez (the Persian celebration of May 1) in my May Day e-book.

References:

Rose, Jeanne, Herbs & Things, Grosset & Dunlap 1972

Simmons, Adelma Grenier, Herb Gardening in Five Seasons, Plume (Penguin) 1990

First published April 19, 2010

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Creating Your Own Maypole

Excerpt from my May Day e-book:

In Wales, the Maypole was usually a birch, cut down in the forest, carried into town and planted in a hole dug into the village green. Friends who’ve attended the May Day ceremony at the former Chinook Learning Center tell me that the men brought in the tree while the women prepared the hole in which it was planted, the two groups working together with bantering and joking about the sexual innuendos of their actions as the tree was erected and settled into the hole.

I’ve also attended the May Day celebrations of the Radical Faeries here in Seattle. Unfortunately the May Pole is already set up by the time we process through Ravenna Ravine, leaving offerings for various deities, so I don’t know how the pole is secured in the hole. It’s important to make sure the Maypole is stable, as dancing around it, pulling on the ribbons, can sway it.

The one year we did a Maypole dance in our backyard, we tried to use a stanchion from a tetherball game to hold the pole but it wasn’t stable enough and one of us had to kneel at the base of the Maypole, steadying it while the others danced around it.

My friend, Maevyn, came up with an artful way of using and re-using her Christmas tree which creates a small, indoor Maypole. She cuts all the branches off her tree after Yule (they would be great for mulch in the garden) but leaves the trunk in the Christmas tree holder. Then on May Day, she attaches ribbons to the top and voila! A miniature portable indoor Maypole!

On the web, I found a suggestion of using a cardboard tube from wrapping paper and inserting it into the umbrella hole of a picnic table. Mrs. Sharp suggests making a portable Maypole by purchasing a large wooden dowel (two to three inches in diameter and at least three feet long), stapling long ribbon streamers to the top and hiding the staples with glued on bows and silk flowers. One person stands holding this pole aloft, while the others dance around it.

The usual length of the ribbon is one-and-a-half times the length of the pole and you must have multiples of four (that is 8, 12, 16, 20, etc.) for the weaving effect to work.

One song that is often recommended for Maypole dancing is Country Gardens. Any sort of country/contra music piece, especially one that can be repeated until the dancing is done, will work. I also think the chant about “Go in and out the windows” would help dancers dancing a Grand Chain. You will find suggestions for patterns to dance and songs to sing in my May Day e-book

References:

Breatnach, Sarah Ban, Mrs Sharp’s Traditions, Scribner 2001

More Resources:

Check out the antique May Day postcards posted by Barbara Marlow Irwin at this web site.

Martha Stewart has a wonderful series of articles about May Day celebrations at her web site, including instructions on making a Maypole (far more sophisticated than those described above), making the cones in which to put the flowers you hang on doorknobs, and three different kinds of Maypole dances.

First published April 19, 2010

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Floralia Sparks May Day

Floradetail_WaterhouseThe Romans honored the Sabine goddess of blossoms and spring with six days of celebrations including games, pantomimes, plays and stripteases, which went on into the night illuminated by torchlight. Everyone wore their most colorful clothes and decked themselves and their animals in flowers. Goats and hares were let loose–they represented fertility and sexuality and Venus in her role as patroness of cultivated nature. Small vegetables (one imagines cucumbers and zucchinis) were distributed as fertility tokens. Flora represented the sexual aspect of plants, the attractiveness of the flowers, and was the matron of prostitutes.flora maria szobrok pinterest

In this Roman statue from Hadrian’s villa, she looks a little too prim and proper to preside over such frivolity. The painting of Flora and the Zephyr by Waterhouse captures Flora in a more wanton pose.

Floralia sets in motion all the delightful holidays associated with May Day. The English have a saying about children born between May 1 and May 8 (Between the Beltanes): they have “the skill of man and beast” and power over both.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, 1999
Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987
Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994
Wikipedia has a well-documented article on the Floralia here.
This article was first published on April 28,2014
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Portraits of Plants, Lesson 3

For the first lesson in this sequence, go here.

I always draw from real plants—never photographs—because plants are three dimensional and were once alive… They are physically present, and can move, change, and challenge the person drawing them. Sarah Simblet, Botany for the Artist

Two summers ago I signed up for a class on botanical drawing taught by Claudia Fitch. Most of our classes met at the wonderful Victorian conservatory at Volunteer Park in Seattle. It was a difficult experience for me in many ways, plunging me back into the sense of inadequacy that I remembered from my high school art classes.

Claudia began with assignments to produce contour drawings like those I described in the first two lessons. Then she introduced us to the concept of drawing negative space. The illustration from the Betty Edwards book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, shows how if we try to draw what we see (as the artist did in the top picture) we will often produce an unsatisfying reproduction. If instead we try to focus on the negative spaces and the outlines, we can produce something that looks more like the object being drawn.

When drawing a plant, the easiest way to see the negative space is to use a frame to isolate the plant. We created viewfinders out of thin cardboard (they should be the same proportion as the page on which you are sketching).  (You can also take a photograph to frame a subject as well.) What you want to do is make sure the plant is not floating in white space in the middle of the page but that it extends to the edges, on at least three sides. Then you draw the negative space, rather than the positive space. The illustration on the left comes from Edwards.

Claudia also taught us to do ten or so quick sketches, trying to frame the subject in different ways, before deciding how we were going to draw. We could move our frames (cut out of stiff cardboard) to see what would make for the best composition as in the example below. As you can see I didn’t finish all of my sketches of the tree trunk I was studying.

When I did these assignments, I became totally absorbed in the task at hand, just focusing on my tools (usually a pen or pencil and a sheet of white paper). It was only when I stopped drawing and looked at my drawing critically that I got frustrated. My sketches bore little resemblance to the plant in front of me.

Yet now, when I am no longer confronted by the actual tree, I am quite happy with the result. This unfinished sketch, takes me back in memory to the actual tree, to the intimacy established as I traced each of its curves with my pencil and then the charcoal.

Once we had achieved some success at reproducing the shapes we actually saw in front of us, we began working with tones and shading. Claudia had us create five distinct tones, ranging from very light to very dark, as samples on the side of the page and then isolate those tones on the plant, almost like doing a paint by number painting. Though it sounds mechanical, this was another interesting exercise in seeing what was really there, rather than what I thought. Again, I didn’t like this sketch of a broccoli leaf at the time I did it, but I can see that by focusing only on tone, I was able to capture some details that I would have overlooked because they didn’t fit my belief about how a leaf looks.

Jude Siegel in A Pacific Northwest Nature Sketchbook suggests another way to learn how values work: choose a color photo and make a black-and-white reproduction of it. She also suggests turning the photograph upside down as a way to dissociate from what you think you know about the item you are drawing and look instead merely at the shapes and colors.

Making an Impression

And yet, I know artists whose medium is life itself and who express the inexpressible without brush, pencil, chisel or guitar. They neither paint nor dance. Their medium is Being. Whatever their hand touches has increased life. They see and don’t have to draw. They are the artists of being alive. Frederick FranckThe Zen of Seeing

I have to admit I really struggled throughout the botanical drawing class. If, like me, you suffer from perceived artistic ineptitude, you might prefer some of these other ways of capturing the likeness of a plant.

Try painting making leaf impressions.  Claudia Nice in How To Keep A Sketchbook Journal describes her technique. She brushes leaves with a medium thick coat of water color, blots them with a paper towel and then presses them on the paper. Gaps in the print can be filled in afterwards with more of the water color paint. She mentions that fuzzy leaves like sage make nice prints. Siegel suggests experimenting with dry and damp paper. She places a piece of newsprint over the plant and smoothes it down with her fingers or an artist’s brayer, a little roller you can buy at art supply stores.

You can also do this in reverse. Put the leaf down on the page (it’s better if it’s something fairly flat and stiff), secure it to the paper with rubber cement or tiny bits of tape, then brush or sponge or spatter paint around it.

I own an extraordinary book called Leaves: In Myth, Magic & Medicine, which is composed of the most exquisite leaf prints created by Alice Thoms Vitale. She applied water-based printer’s ink to the surface of fresh leaves with a brayer. She then lowered the paper onto the leaf (rather than the other way around) and pressed carefully and selectively with her thumb. Then the paper was lifted off and allowed to dry. The delicacy of these images just has to be seen to be believed which is why I am reproducing the paper birch on this page to show you how Vitale elevates what seems like a child’s kindergarten project into an art form.

Another easy way to play around with the shapes of leaves is to do a shadow tracing. Place an object between the sun and your paper so that it casts a clear shadow. Then trace the outline. You can then color in the outline, if you like. I’ve done this with chalk on a sunny day with a tree shadow. It was a fun ephemeral art project.

Assignment for Week 3

If you aren’t totally terrified of an art assignment, then try any one of the sequence of steps I outlined above:

  • Choose a subject and draw it, focusing on the negative space.
  • Create a viewfinder; use it to make six or nine quick sketches framing your subject
  • Choose one view you like and spend time just filling in the negative space with color or charcoal
  • Choose a subject, create a tone palette and then color in your drawing

If you are terrified of art assignments, try one of the more playful approaches.

  • Paint a leaf or flower with water color paint and impress it on a wet or dry page
  • Outline a shadow of a leaf or flower
  • Create a stencil by placing a fern or other stiff plant on paper and painting around it
  • Draw around the shadow of a tree on the pavement with chalk

 

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Earth Day/Arbor Day

Earth Day is a fairly new holiday. Earth Day was first proclaimed on March 21, the Spring Equinox in San Francisco in 1970. Doesn’t that seem perfect? The spring after the Summer of Love. Just a few weeks later, also in 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Senator from Wisconsin, called for an Environmental Teach-in (modeled after the Vietnam war sit-ins) on April 22, which had been celebrated for many years as Arbor Day.

Arbor Day is almost one hundred years older than Earth Day, but still young for a holiday. In 1872, J. Sterling Morton, the Secretary of the Nebraska Territory, declared April 10 a day for planting trees (according to this history compiled by the Arbor Day Foundation).  In 1885, it was declared a legal holiday in the State of Nebraska and moved to April 22, Morton’s birthday. It was adopted as a holiday by other states but the date has varied, depending on when tree planting is ideal. It is now usually celebrated on the last Friday in April but it seems to have fallen out of favor as Earth Day has gained popularity.

Venus Verticordia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Although Arbor Day and Earth Day are relatively new holidays, they align with many older traditions. There are many ancient April festivals which honor the goddess as garden guardian (Venus Verticordia on April 1) and Earth mother (Megalisa on April 3, Cerealia on April 13, and Fordicalia on April 15). April is also the month of St. George (his feast day is April 23), the dragon slaying saint. For centuries, the celebrations in honor of St. George have associations with verdant nature. The very name George means farmer.

In Carinthia and Transylvania, a birch tree or willow tree, decked with flowers, is called Green George. Sometimes a boy is dressed up in branches, leaves and flowers. Albanians slaughter a lamb on this day and smear blood on sills (recalling the Jewish holiday of Passover) to protect them from evil. Before an icon of St George, they pray: “Holy St George, this year thou hast sent me this lamb, next year, I beseech you, send me a larger one.” People go on picnics and weigh themselves holding sprigs of green. St George or Mari Ghergis is the most popular saint in Egypt where he is associated with El Khider, the green man, who appears to travelers who are lost or in despair.

Mrs Sharp (an alter ego of Sarah Ban Breathnach) celebrates Earth Day by doing an inventory garden tools and supplies. She makes presents of gardening gloves and other accessories. Each of her children has a tree, and on this day they clean around their own tree and tie a ribbon on the trunk to honor it.

On the very first Arbor Day, more than one  million trees were planted in Nebraska. Planting a tree can still be a great way to celebrate.

Or you can simply admire trees. Go on  a tree walk like the one I took two weeks ago at the University of Washington with our local plant and tree expert, Arthur Lee Jacobson.
I was delighted when we entered the quad which is famous for its flowering cherry trees and found it thronged with people. Students were lounging on the lawns. Japanese families were taking photos of their young ones under the trees. The profusion of pink flowers seemed like an ample reason for celebration.

If you don’t have knowledgeable guide, the Arbor Day Foundation provides this useful key which will help you identify trees.

In honor of Earth Day, experiment with eating only local food. Determine what foods are available within 250 miles of your home and create meals based on those foods. Find out where your eggs come from. Visit a local farm. Stop at a roadside stand. Invite your friends for a feast or a potluck to celebrate local foods.

Resources:
Al Khidr web site (source of picture)

Arbor Day Foundation web site
Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, 1999
Breathnach, Sarah Ban, Mrs Sharp’s Traditions, Simon & Schuster 1990
Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Legend, Maria Leach, editor, Harper and Row 1984
Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994
Morrow, Susan Brind, The Names of Things, Riverhead 1997
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937
Wikipedia article on Earth Day

First published on April 12, 2012

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Easter Monday

locks 036Easter Monday

There are many unique celebrations that take place on Easter Monday but most involve playful pranks, splashing with water, whipping with switches and spending the day outdoors.

In England, particularly in the Northwest and along the Welsh border, young men roved around in a group, carrying a stout chair decorated with greens, flowers and ribbons in which they placed each woman of the house and lifted her three times in the air. They then claimed a kiss and a small gift of money. On Tuesday, women went around with the chair and lifted the men. The lifting ended promptly at noon on both days.

In some places the observance was rowdier. Both men and women were hoisted into the air and kissed by roving gangs. Sometimes a rope was stretched across the road and those who were halted by the obstacle were then placed in a chair and lifted. Christina Hole in her book on British folk customs suggests that lifting was the remnant of an older agricultural and magical custom, perhaps a rite of fertility designed to foster the growth of the crops.

In Shropshire and Herefordshire, the feet of the person being lifted were sprinkled with water from a wet bunch of flowers, recalling the watery sprinkling of the Easter Service (the purification and new birth symbolized by baptism) and the New Year festivals of Thailand and Sri Lanka (Apr 13 & 16).

Gertrud Nelson Mueller when writing about how she celebrates Christian rituals always takes the day off to take her kids to water. Usually they go to a nearby marsh for birding, but splashing is a part of their celebration.

pussywillowsDyngus Day/Smigus Day

The Poles celebrate the Monday after Easter under the name of Dyngus Day or Smigus Day. The customs are familiar: boys splash girls with water on Monday; and also strike at them with pussywillow wands (both sound like remnants of fertility rituals).  In earlier times, the girls had to wait for a chance to get revenge until Thursday when they threw crockery at the boys. However, now it is more common for them to fight back with water on Monday. This article discusses both names and traces them to the pagan practices of splashing with water and whipping with pussywillows.willow switches by shaw 0312

In American cities with strong Polish communities, like South Bend, Indiana and Buffalo, New York, Dyngus Day is celebrated with parades, pussy willow whipping and squirt-gun fights and traditional food, like kielbasa and pierogi.

When my daughter and I were in Prague around Easter time 2012, she took a photo of these willow switches that were for sale for use on Easter Monday.

La Pasquetta

In Italy, this day is called La Pasquetta, Little Easter. Everyone goes on a picnic, meant to last all afternoon (like the Persian festival of the Thirteenth Outside). They take along an antipasto of a hard-boiled egg and salt and local bitter herbs like aurugula or radicchio or fennel.

Feast of the Blajini

In Rumania on the Monday following Easter, women throw red Easter eggs into running streams for the benefit of the Blajini, the lost race of spirits which live on the bank of the river fed by all the streams in the world. They live so far away, they don’t know what’s happening in our world, so this is how they know that spring has come.

Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Paladin 1978
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990
Nelson, Gertrud Mueller, To Dance with God, Paulist Press 
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937
 
First published April 21, 2014
 
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Portraits of Plants, Part 2

Portraits of Plants, Week 2

Second in a series of posts from My Year in Flowers. During the month of April I learned how to draw plants. The first post is here.

Draw bamboos for ten years,
Become a bamboo,
Then forget all about bamboos when you are drawing.
Georges Duthuit

I produce pages of sketches for every plant I study. I usually begin with a contour drawing or spirit drawing. Then I do a more literal contour drawing, placing the flower on the page, and tracing around it. Although this usually produces a rather clumsy outline, at least I have a life-size reproduction.

Clare Walker Leslie and Charle E.Roth in their book Keeping A Nature Journal, recommend a series of sketches. A contour drawing, then a modified contour drawing (that is one where you are allowed to look at your page). They then recommend what they call quick gesture sketches. Looking at your subject and your page, draw a quick sketch in 5 seconds, then another in 10 seconds, then another in 15 seconds.

The next sketch is diagrammatic. This is where I focus on the details.  How many petals? How many stamens? How do they line up? I try to describe colors (a silvery pink, a greenish-brown) and note scents. As you work with the flower, the botanical terms that seemed so artificial become real. The intricate parallel lines of the monocot family become apparent in the leaf. You notice right away that the leaves are alternating rather than opposite on the stem. I find the sepals most interesting—like little green jewel cases with their green ribs and undulating shapes. They almost always recapitulate the number of petals and stamens.

I tend to draw flowers straight on but they rarely look right. Leslie and Roth suggest several different approaches: a profile, looking down, looking straight at the flower, viewing it from the side.

Sometimes I create a design sketch, breaking down the shape of the petals into simple shapes, lining them around the center in an ideal pattern. I examine the way the flower and the leaf are attached to the stem and draw those nodes on the paper. These botanical details can be rendered as blueprints, and in that way, they begin to resemble design patterns.

I’ve always dreamed in design. It used to be that when I closed my eyes, I would see designs for fabrics, for china, for wrapping paper, flashing behind my eyelids. These went away as I got older. Where did they go? Perhaps they atrophied due to disuse. But even now when I look at the plates from old herbals, the ones I like the most are the ones in which plants are “reduced to decoration” or “stylized beyond recognition” in the words of Wilfrid Blunt in his book The Illustrated Herbal.

William Morris is one of my heroes. I love the dense, color-saturated floral patterns of the wallpapers for which he is famous. Perhaps I was his wife, Janey Morris, in a former life and my visions of designs were simply etched into my brain because of all those hours spent embroidering them into curtains.  Try transforming your flower into a two-dimensional shape that will still convey the quality of the flower. What is the simplest shape that is still recognizable?

You also don’t need artistic talent to do this sort of drawing. Of course it helps. But I have none (as my high school art teacher made clear to me). Yet I manage to create sketches that are recognizable. More important, they are educational. Remember the purpose of the sketch is not to create a lifelike rendition of the flower, such that people will gaze at it and say, “Wow! That looks just like an alstromeria!” But rather that you will have learned more about it.

I was a snob about alstromerias until I drew one. I thought of them as frivolous products of the cut flower trade. They have no scent and they last forever in the vase, two signs of a flower that has been turned into a freak of nature. But a few years ago I spent two cold, wet weeks in March at a writer’s retreat. The only flowers to be found were the alstromerias that had been purchased to adorn the main house where we ate our dinners. I took a few stems with me to my cabin in the woods and I began to draw them. It was me and the alstromerias for hours. I could not get enough of them. I loved the clever shape of the flower with its three rounded pink tepals, serving as a base, for the more narrow, more vertical tepals, flaunting splashes of yellow and distinctive black nectar lines, designs as decorative as the spots of a cougar or the stripes of a zebra, luring bumblebees into the nectar at the heart of the flower.  I loved the six-sided little green basket of the ovary, the three little curlicues on each pistil. I loved the way the snake-like curve of the stem, the twist of the leaves. Never again will I snub an alstromeria.

Assignment for Week 2

Continue to sketch flowers. Choose another one. Bold flowers with simple shapes are probably the easiest. Lilies and tulips. Buy a stem of flowers from the grocery store or florist if you can’t find anything you like in your garden. A stem with leaves is just fine.

Try a number of different techniques: contour drawings, quick gesture sketches, tracing the outline of the flower, viewing the flower from different angles, diagramming the various parts, reducing a flower to its simplest outline.

For the third lesson in this series, go here.

Illustrations: The lovely William Morris design is the pattern called Chrysanthemum. I found the painting of the sage looking at the bamboo here. I took the photo of the alstromerias I was drawing. But I haven’t found the drawing I did of them.

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Family Egg Traditions

From LoriDeMarre

After my mother died, I inherited her cedar chest which was full of things from family members deemed important enough to save and pass on. I’m continually fascinated by the odds and ends of what has remained.  So much of it is such a mystery, and is left to my imagination.  As I go deeper, I pull out an odd assortment of random possessions, such as an ancient cardboard assortment of black snaps for making clothing, the much used Ouija Board and a small booklet called: Text Book of Osteopathy from the Standpoint of Mechano-Therapy, copyright 1910.

One of the most precious findings: a string of painted eggshells– still intact and whole.  The eggs have delicately painted flowers on them and there is a ribbon that connects them.  One egg has Easter 1906 painted on it, although Easter is misspelled.  Another egg has the name of Robert on it.

As a child, I remember being fascinated by these magical treasures and asking my mother for their story.  She didn’t know the mystery, so we would just put them back into her grandfather’s trunk that lived in our dirt cellar.

These fragments of family myth and mystery, have inspired me once again to pick up my camera and other art supplies, in a way that I haven’t done in many years.  Art is my personal way of exploring the creative mystery of living.

First published March 14, 2010

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Pysanky: Ritual Eggs

Decorating eggs is one of my favorite spring time rituals. Every year around this time, I set out the pots of dye and the cartons of eggs, the tools and the candles and the beeswax I need to make pysanky.  And for the few weeks before Easter, I spend a few hours every night or so, inscribing patterns on eggs. I can get lost for hours, totally absorbed in this process.

The art of decorating eggs may be the oldest art form. A recent find in South Africa of colored and etched ostrich shells dating back 60,000 years has scientists speculating on their meaning. Having made pysanky for years, I recognize them as ritual eggs, and the designs chosen as those that are easiest for beginning egg artists to create.

These eggs are magic talismans.
Eggs are  symbols of spring, found in cultures and ritual meals all over the world. Some of the most beautiful decorated eggs come from the Ukraine where they are called PysankyPysanky feature elaborate designs made with beeswax resist and are always raw. These eggs are magic talismans. The designs on the sides are messages (pysanky comes from a root word meaning “to write”) invoking fertility, long life, luck, protection and hope. Eggs with wheat and fruit designs might be buried in the fields to encourage the crops. Eggs with blue and green meander designs were kept in homes and carried around a fire to contain it.

I learned how to make pysanky from a book called Ukrainian Easter Eggs written by Anne Kmit, the Luciow sisters and Luba Perchyshyn. They have written many books on this topic but also sell tools and provide instructions on their web site: Ukrainian Gift Shop. Pysanky were always made by groups of women working together, late at night, during the week before Easter. The children were in bed; the men were not invited; the eggs were always fertile eggs. The women asked for specific blessings for each egg they made and sang traditional songs as they worked.

The eggs were distributed in a ritual manner. One or two eggs were given to the priest. Eggs were placed on the graves of family members. Eggs were given to all the children and godchildren. Unmarried girls exchanged eggs with the eligible young men in the community. A few eggs were placed in coffins to be ready in case someone died. Several were kept in the home to protect from fire and storms. Two or three were placed in the trough or the stables so the animals would have many young. One egg was placed under each beehive and one was saved for each grazing animal to be taken out to the fields with the shepherds in the spring. An egg with wheat symbols was placed at the start of the first furrow plowed and another at the end of the last. A bride would take an egg to her marriage ceremony in her skirt and on returning home, drop it saying. “Let me bear the child as easily as the egg falls.” If that didn’t work, the husband might receive an egg with a rooster on it or an oak leaf.

Every aspect of making the egg was important from the colors chosen to the designs. The most ancient and widely used symbol was the sun. Certain eggs, covered with symbols of water, flowers, growing plants and little wings, were used to “call spring.” Other eggs, called “noise insect eggs” depicted birds singing, crickets and the chirping noise of the forest to invoke the sounds of spring.

Here’s a list of some symbols.

Star: Success

Birds:  Spring, good harvest & pushing away evil

Hearts: Love

Fruits, vegetables, wheat: Good harvest

Flowers:  Beauty and children

Spiders:  Healing powers and good luck

Animals, especially deer:  Prosperity and wealth

Ladders (given to older people):  Moving to a new level of existence

40 triangles (a traditional pattern):  Wishes for the many facets of family life

Circle: Protection

Thirteen years ago I finally purchased the appropriate tool for making Ukrainian eggs, a kistka (I got mine in the art department of my local university bookstore). Ever since then, I’ve been hosting egg-decorating parties for me and my women friends. Each woman brings some eggs (either raw or hard-boiled). Meanwhile I set up several tables with kistkas, blocks of beeswax, a candle for each woman and some way of holding the egg steady (paper towels are the simplest—we also use the little plastic tables that come with your delivered pizza). The same stores that sell kistkas and special beeswax (dyed a darker color so it’s easier to see) also sell lathes on which you can turn your eggs so you can achieve perfectly even lines. We’ve never used one of these. The same stores also sell electric kistkas but I’ve scorned these as too modern. I like the simple ancient process.

I love the delicacy of the designs, the smell of the wax and the flickering light of the candle, which combine to create a trance-like state.

However, I do buy the packets of Ukrainian dyes—most of which are highly toxic—because they produce brilliant colors—turquoise, black and maroon, among others–you can’t find in ordinary Easter egg dyes. These are made with boiling water so mix them ahead of time so they can cool. I also use the regular Easter egg dyes you buy in kits at the store, particularly because I like the little wire dippers that come in these kits, handy for putting eggs in and out of the jars (I use wide-mouthed canning jars). We also use spoons for this task. I leave my dyes out, often for two or three weeks, so I can continue working on eggs. I love the way they look: the gleaming jars and the brilliant colors.

To make the design, you put a little bit of beeswax in the funnel of the kistka, then melt it over a candle flame and draw on the eggshell with the molten beeswax. Begin with a white egg and put wax on all the areas you want to stay white, then dye the egg yellow, and cover all the areas with wax which you want to remain yellow, and so forth through orange, red and a dark color (brown, black or purple). When the egg is done, place it in a low-temperature oven for a few minutes to melt the wax, which is then rubbed off to reveal the intricate designs and glowing colors of your egg. I love the delicacy of the designs, the smell of the wax and the flickering light of the candle, which combine to create a trance-like state.

If you don’t have a kistka, you can decorate eggs using a pin. Simply dip it into melted wax and drag it across the surface of the egg. It will leave a little comet-like trail. When done in concentric circles, you will have created sunbursts. The eggs, even though they are not cooked, can be kept for many years if they are stored so the air can move around them freely. I store mine in egg cartons in the basement but I have had an occasional egg go bad. Last year, I put varnish on all the eggs, hoping this would help preserve them. It’s a messy process (since there’s no way to hold an egg without getting varnish all over your own fingers) but it seems to have helped and it certainly brought out their colors. You can also blow the inside out of the eggs after they’ve been painted.

For more information on making Ukrainian eggs, you might enjoy this website created by Artist Ann Morash. For inspiration, or just amazement, check out the stunning examples of pysanky from Kolomiya Museum of Hutsul Folk Art. This web site featuring the work of Sofia Zielyk shows the way an artist might interpret this traditional craft. And then there’s Martha Stewart. She features 56 different ways to decorate eggs on her web site including marbled eggs, glittered eggs (very classy), gilded eggs, eggs dyed with natural materials, silk-dyed eggs, lace eggs, stenciled eggs and many more.

First published Mar 12, 2010

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