Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Brief History of the Heart: In Pictures

As I mentioned over on the Farm, I've been looking up images of the heart in conjunction with my current preoccupation with impending surgery (not until March, I hope). For someone interested in the visual arts in general, and design in particular, the history of ways in which human beings have imagined the heart visually offers a fascinating journey into imagination and understanding.

Metaphor-makers that we are, human beings have to understand new concepts in terms of what they already know. I remember a history of science professor once telling us that the real breakthrough in modern understanding of heart function didn't occur until the hydraulic pump was invented, because until then we had no way to envision what was going on. I'm not entirely convinced that this is the case, since William Harvey's understanding of the pumping action of the heart was in place by the early seventeenth century, and the hydraulic ram is an eighteenth-century invention; ideas about pumping in general had also been around since the Middle Ages. But the popular understanding of the relationship between the heart and the pulse must certainly been made clearer to the general public after sophisticated pumping devices became more commonplace.

There are several terrific websites available on the heart and the history of what we know about it (one of the best is the PBS program, The Mysterious Human Heart; see also the Franklin Institute's online exhibit, The Human Heart). But most histories start with Harvey, and the more intriguing ideas are those that preceded our modern notions.

Take, for example, this illuminated drawing of the circulatory system from a thirteenth-century medical miscellany (Oxford). I show this to my art and design history students as an example of Medieval secular manuscripts, and they hoot over the goofiness of it. But if that little circle in the middle of the chest is supposed to be the heart, it's clear that the illustrator had some notion of the relationship between heart and veins. If it simply acknowledges the connections between vessels and the heart, without really understanding how it all worked, it's still interesting that folks were poking around in bodies trying to figure out what exactly was going on.

Or consider this Persian image, from The Medicine of Akbar (via the National Library of Medicine's Historical Anatomies site), which suggests a similar view of the heart and the veins.
The "anatomical squat" as I like to call it is a common pose in early medical documents. Sometimes annotations and rubrications can be entertaining, because they describe (in languages I don't read) what's going on in the drawings, at both ends of the digestive system, and are frequently placed in amusing contexts. What's clear, though, is that the image of the heart with which we're familiar today isn't intuitively obvious.

As printing and graphic arts burgeoned beginning in the sixteenth century, lovely illustrations appeared in anatomical treatises, such as this woodcut from Anatomiae, by Johann Drylander, published in 1537 (from the University of Toronto's Anatomia, an exhibit of prints from the Thomas Fisher Library). The catalogue description indicates that even if functions weren't completely fathomable, the artist could still depict what he saw.
Anatomy of the heart, pericardium reflected and heart ventricles incised. Aorta, superior vena cava, pulmonary vessels and diaphragm shown. Structures shown in isolation. Anterior view.

As much as I admire what earlier illustrators accomplished, I can't help but think that living in this particular technological moment has its rewards. For one, digital imaging machines and programs of all varieties are making it possible not only to explore the physiology of the heart in ways that the early theorists couldn't imagine, but to use these technologies to fix what ails us. Some of what's produced is quite beautiful:

This particular image (as well as the one used to open this post), by medical illustrator Patrick Lynch (available from Wikimedia Commons; his medical illustration portfolio is on his website) shows just how lovely instructional media can be thanks to the new technological tools available to talented artists. And as much as I appreciate the efforts of the early physicians, I'm thankful to live in a time when the visual arts, married to advances in medicine, can provide us with the technology and expertise to repair hearts that don't work.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Orientalist Switchplates

Once in a great while I wax creative with stuff I've collected over the years: odd images, bits of paper, stamps, and other ephemera. As an unabashed fan of the pioneers of collage and papier collé (Picasso and Braque) as well as of their heirs (Joseph Cornell, Nick Bantock, and others), I occasionally dabble in the practice of sticking things onto other things.

Some of the best imaginable "canvases" for such an endeavor are the cheesy blank plastic plates generally used to surround light switches and power outlets in our homes. Since I can't really throw anything away without a damned good reason, and am appalled by the prices some sources ask for more artful examples, I took it upon myself a couple of years ago to decorate my own. The first couple were usable, but not exactly awe-inspiring. I finally perfected the technique to my own satisfaction, however: first paint the plate with flat acrylic, and when it's dry begin to apply the desired bits with decoupage gel and a paintbrush. After that's dry, add metallic paint or leaf, or a stamped image or two, and then coat with another layer of gel. They turn out nicely and are pretty indestructible once coated.

All of mine so far are created from origami papers, kimono wrapping paper, washi, postage stamps from Asia, newspaper, fabric, photos, images from Dover design books and other bits of Japonisme or Chinoiserie I've come across over the years--even my mother's signature "chop." I grew up in Japan and Taiwan, and (because I hoard material evidence of my past experiences--it's a genetic defect and probably also has something to do with my archaeological training) have collected myriad boxes of things that can be used for collages on small surfaces.

I once made a couple of Impressionist examples for a mother-in-law as a Christmas gift by simply applying note cards cut out to fit blank wooden plates, and used gold paint on the edges. They looked like a million bucks--but also like something you'd buy in a hobby store. The collage versions are much more personal, and offer me a connection with my past every time I turn on a light or plug in the toaster.

As we've been working on the house and making rooms more habitable, I've been adding the plates as a finishing touch. It's just plain fun to do, and a nice way to work of tensions that can't be eased by gardening this time of year. The materials are ready-to-hand, cheap to acquire, and simple to use, providing the perfect sort of art therapy one might need around the holidays. They make nice gifts, too, especially if you spring for the wooden versions. Nick Bantock I ain't, but I have nice switchplates nonetheless. The iPhone images don't exactly do them justice--but provide a general idea of the results.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Channelling Frank Gehry

A couple of weeks ago I showed a film on Frank Gehry in my Art & Design Since 1945 class, and then gave them this assignment:

Using Gehry's process, design and build a model of a building for a specific use. The model must be completed by the end of the class (3 hours from when the film ended), and must fit the footprint of a letter-sized manila folder. Include the names of the team members and design sketches in the folder.

They picked buildings out of a hat (more or less), and these are some of the results (I apologize for the meager information provided by the photos--I took them with my iPhone):

A performance space with indoor and outdoor venues.

A brewery, with a tasting room and a bistro.

A high-school science lab.

The science lab was the clear winner, but I really appreciated the ingenuity and spirit all of these guys put into the project. I'd mention their names, but I can't find the list. I'll edit this post to add them when I locate it.

The class is now busily working on group seminar projects like "The Artist's Book in the Twenty-first Century" and "Public Art and Architecture in the DFW Area." The results are almost always interesting, and this particular class shows more promise than usual. Can't wait to see what happens.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Days of the Dead

Before I moved to Texas, my end-of-October celebratory experience was limited to Halloween, which lost its fascination quickly after I started getting serious about health and environmental issues, and after my kids had outgrown (I thought) dressing up like Han Solo and fairy princesses. I am, of course, completely wrong about that, since I'm pretty sure they both gleefully dress up as video game characters or Sex in the City types on a regular basis. But I've gone a bit bah-humbug on the candy-giving/costuming mania over the past few years. We've handed out treats only once since we moved to this neighborhood; mostly we keep the porch light off and hunker down to watch a movie with the curtains drawn.

I still do like the idea of celebrating the dead, but I'm not sure that scoring pounds of candy is the most poetic way of doing it. The last time I "dressed up" I wore a white Victorian nightgown and pasty white makeup and drifted about the trails of the Heard Museum, a nearby nature center, to frighten paying guests. But that was over twenty years ago. More recently, I've grown fond of local Day of the Dead festivities, and of the lovely sugar skulls and crepe-paper colors, and the music that floats down the street when folks from our local barrio drive by on their way to the highway.

My grandmother was a great one for remembering those who'd gone before, but her ceremonies (which included gathering up every stray flower in the yard into a couple of buckets of water) focused on the family plot in Big Pine, on Memorial Day. Once or twice we drove up on Veterans Day to put flowers on my grandfather's grave, but Day of the Dead wasn't in our vocabulary then, despite the fact that the Valley was home to a fairly large population of second- and third- (and probably more than a few fourth-) generation Mexican immigrants.

Outside my hometown lies an old, mostly-forgotten graveyard with only a few headstones left, some engraved in Spanish, some in Russian. I've never pursued the sources of the graves, but maybe this would be a good time to do so. Sometimes we'd visit the site when I took the kids to see Grandma, and we'd go out and walk among the graves on a hot summer evening. The setting sun always made the scene a bit eerie, and once (about twenty five years ago) I took the picture here--of my daughter in her nightie next to one of the headstones that had fallen over (or had been pushed) and then cracked.

An aside: Following my own instructions (issued to my students only yesterday) to follow any question that arises with research, I conducted a quick search on Owens Valley graves and found this through Google Books (it refers to the very gravestone beside which my daughter is standing in the photo):

Josefa de Alday's tombstone reads, 'Your children wish to remember the proof of the great love they had for you.' In 1880, Josefa was 40 years old and living in Inyo County wth two children. The D. E. P. at the bottom of her stone means 'rest in peace.'

From Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra, p. 119
by Gena Philibert-Ortega

Now, in exile far from familiar graves and family bones, I've taken to enjoying what goes on locally. This year, at least one of my Visual Anthropology group projects will involve Día de los Muertos celebrations in town. The last time I taught the class was during the fall quarter a year ago, and one team visited a street party in Fort Worth to record Cowtown's version of the Day of the Dead. Because it involves community and tradition, it's a natural subject for anthropology in the first place, and an especially good topic if the focus is on recording it on film. These two guys took lovely pictures of the festivities and exhibits. This picture that opens this post is from those taken for the project.

Holidays like All Saints' and All Souls' days have roots in far more ancient traditions than the Christian beliefs that finally embraced them. Celebrating Los Días de los Muertos is itself a hybrid of Aztec and Christian views of the dead and of the afterlife, just as Halloween marries Christian and pagan rituals. I'm not sure why I now enjoy the Day of the Dead idea so much more than Halloween, except that the focus on remembrance (rather than on greed?) reassures me that when my remains have been scattered in the Sierras, or buried under a tree in an eco-cemetery somewhere, somebody might build a little altar in my honor, with pictures of things I loved and a little sugar skull. At least I'll know that nobody will be posing their daughter next to my tombstone!

Photo credit: Thanks to Alex Antonio and Drew Simon for the great picture and for inspiring the direction of the post.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Peter Patter Book

When I was little, we spent a great deal of time overseas, first in Bermuda, then Japan, then Taiwan. Between every posting (my father was career Air Force), we'd go home to my grandparents little bungalow next to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power intake and power station at Cottonwood, in the Owens River Valley in California.

The first thing my brother and I would do upon arriving, after we had been greeted by grandparents with hugs and cookies, was to grab a timeworn copy of The Peter Patter Book of Nursery Rhymes (by Leroy F. Jackson, illustrated exquisitely by Blanche Fisher Wright) and curl up on Grandma's lap to hear the poems read aloud:

Peter lives upon a mountain
Pretty near the sun,
Knows the bears and birds and rabbits
Nearly every one;
Has a home among the alders,
Bed of cedar bark,
Walks alone beneath the pine trees
Even when it’s dark.

Squirrels tell him everything
That happens in the trees,
Cricket in the gander-grass
Sings of all he sees;
Rimes from bats and butterflies,
Crabs and waterfowl;
But the best of all he gets
From his Uncle Owl.

Sometimes when its day-time,
But mostly in the night,
They sit beneath an oak tree
And hug each other tight,
And tell their rimes and riddles
Where the catty creatures prowl—
Funny little Peter Patter
And his Uncle Owl.

The telling of exploits involving one or more of our uncles was part of the total experience of hearing these poems. Since my father's two younger brothers were over ten years his junior, and close to one another in age, they had developed a friendly but spirited sibling rivalry that revealed itself upon hearing a particular favorite, "Jelly Jake and Butter Bill."

Jelly Jake and Butter Bill
One dark night when all was still
Pattered down the long, dark stair,
And no one saw the guilty pair;
Pushed aside the pantry-door
And there found everything galore,—
Honey, raisins, orange-peel,
Cold chicken aplenty for a meal,
Gingerbread enough to fill
Two such boys as Jake and Bill.
Well, they ate and ate and ate,
Gobbled at an awful rate
Till I’m sure they soon weighed more
Than double what they did before.
And then, it’s awful, still it’s true,
The floor gave way and they went thru.
Filled so full they couldn’t fight.
Slowly they sank out of sight.
Father, Mother, Cousin Ann,
Cook and nurse and furnace man
Fished in forty-dozen ways
After them, for twenty days;
But not a soul has chanced to get
A glimpse or glimmer of them yet.
And I’m afraid we never will—
Poor Jelly Jake and Butter Bill.

After she'd read (or rather recited, since she knew many of them by heart) about Jake and Bill, she proceed to tell us the story of how, when her boys were little, my Uncle Art would exclaim upon hearing the line "And no one saw the guilty pair," "Well I saw 'em too!" This was brought on by the fact that Art's older brother was named Owen, which sounded all too much like "no one"--so if Owen could see them, so could Art.

Of course, my brother and I always thought this was hilarious (Art was also known to claim, whenever anyone referred to Owen's Lake, the then-dry lake bed that dominated the landscape, "It's my lake too!"). We never got tired of hearing these stories, nor of hearing my grandmother tell them.

At some point after I'd gone off to college, married, and had children, I realized that I wanted to share those poems with my own kids. But by that time the book had disappeared from Gram's house, absconded with by some cousin or another. So one might be able to imagine my joy when several years later she acquired a copy through a book search service and presented to me and the children around the time of their birthdays in 1980, when my daughter turned one and my son four.

Lately I've been rearranging rooms and getting ready for an onslaught of visitors this coming December (my daughter will be graduating from college, at long last, after several years of working full time and going to school), and things keep reappearing after long years of being tucked away in odd corners. One of the books resurrected from a spider-webby corner of a closet was none other than the Peter Patter book. I thought of scanning some of the images to talk about here in the Cabinet, but a quick Google search led me to a Project Gutenburg edition, complete with illustrations.

Several years ago I saw a few reprints for sale in Barnes and Noble, but they had been "cleaned up" in order to meet to the present-day guidelines for political correctness to which publishers must adhere (with good reason, for the most part). But since I managed not to associate the "big black Bugoo" in my favorite rhyme, "Polly Picklenose" (which I can still recite from memory) with African Americans or become a racist as a result of reading this book (any more than I became a racist or a sexist from reading Enid Blyton as a child), I wonder about how much risk is actually involved. Gutenberg has, alas, used the revised version. A few unsavory stereotypes have been removed, but the bulk of the book is just as I remembered it, Wright's beautiful pictures, and Jackson's silly, funny, still-entertaining rhymes.

Also available through Project Gutenberg are Wright's illustrations in The Goody-Naughty Book written by Sarah Cory Rippey, and (perhaps her best known) The Real Mother Goose.

Images: The cover drawing, and "Jelly Jake and Butter Bill." The image just above is for "Hippity Hop to Bed."

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A Surfeit of Pears

One of the lovlier aspects of my old, cranky house, is that its big property is home to a number of fruits and nuts--and that doesn't include the owners. Ahem.

This year there have been tons of pears, probably because of the relatively abundant rain. I just leave them be, so I didn't prune them or pinch buds, or perform any of the steps required for large, well-groomed fruit. As a result, the branches drape down to the grown, overburdened with their bumper crop. And now I've got to figure out what to do with them, because they're not the most photogenic of varieties, and are rock-hard, but quite good even when not quite ripe. If you'd like to plant pears hardy to North Texas, Willis Orchard Company seems to be a good source.

My two trees don't seem to be quite the same, but are probably Kieffer/Orient varieties, both pioneer favorites in Texas. They're highly resistant to fire blight (the Plague of Pears), and store well. The nifty thing about pears is that they ripen best off the tree. I've had a couple recently, still hard as granite, sliced and eaten with good cheese--crisp, like apples. Ugly as sin, though.

I had to harvest the lot last weekend, because the neighborhood urchins swarmed across the front lawn with glee when one of them noticed my over-laden trees placed invitingly next to an alley. After scolding them gruffly ("It would be decent of you to at least ask," I lectured. "Take some, but do leave some for me; it's my yard, after all!"). And then they all but cleaned me out.

The basket I filled with what remained was given me by one of my former mothers-in-law. Mind you, I've had five, thanks to the vagaries of modern marital patterns, but one of them was really good at finding unusual gifts. Since I had the reputation of being the family "earth mother," I got the reproduction Appalachian apple picking basket from the fancy mail-order catalogue one year. This is the first time I've used it for anything resembling its original purpose, and it does hold a good number of pears.

At any rate, now I've got to do something with them, since the weather's cooling off (thanks in part to the hurricanes now ravaging the Caribbean), and it's not too hot to work in the kitchen. I want to be able to give preserves or confits for Yule gifts, and to have something nice to marry with cashew or almond butter in sandwiches. Actually, the idea of sliced hard pear and cashew butter sounds great for a good midday nosh.

The first place I looked for a recipe was Mrs. Rudkin's cookbook about which I waxed enthusiastically a while ago. Once again, her antique recipes section had the answer, from 1658, and she modified it enticingly for the modern kitchen:

Weigh as many pears as you want to preserve and then weigh out half their weight in sugar. Core and stem but do not peel the pears. Put alternate layers of pears and sugar in an earthenware jar or crock. Add brandy to cover the fruit. Cover the jar closely and keep in the refrigerator or in a cool place for at least 2 weeks. For 8 quarts pears, 1 quart brandy will suffice.

I can see us all now come December, sitting around the fireplace getting tipsy on brandied pears. I'll still look for jam and conserve ideas, but this is my kind of recipe. For others, I recommend the page full of ideas from Alcestis (Cooky) Oberg, Galveston County Master Gardner--especially the one for "exotic pear pickles." I never thought of gulf-coast Texas as pear-growing country, but she's had success with varieties like mine. I just hope that the wave of hurricanes doesn't damage her crop.

Photos: Pears on one of the trees, ugly pears on a tablecloth, pears in an apple-picking basket with my neighbor's much-lovelier-than-mine yard in the background.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Fiddling Away the Summer

On the same day that I purchased the aforementioned cookbook, I picked up a copy of Neil Gaiman's wonderful kid's book, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, illustrated by Dave McKean. There's something charming about these post-David Carson illustrated books, with their grungy disregard for the former proprieties of children's illustrations. We can lay some blame for this--if that's what's required--at the feet of Georges Braque, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg, and others who taught us that collage is a legitimate art form, and on David Carson and April Greiman, among others, who taught us that we didn't have to take type at face value. We can, in fact, mess with it.

As much as I love all the artful tomfoolery that gave us Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpiller (or, as my children used to call it, The Vey Hungey D-r-r-r-r), I still remember fondly Walter Crane and his many imitators, and their engaging drawings in books I inherited from my mother, and even my grandmothers. So when, in the process of sorting through decades worth of accumulated miscellanea (as part of the guest-room conversion project), I came upon some of these books, I decided to share them here.

The first is The Story of Silky, by Jasmine Stone van Dresser, with pictures by Clarence Biers and Joan Harman (originally published by Rand McNally in 1924; mine is the 1938 edition, so I don't know who it originally belonged to). The story is a bit silly, but both "Silky" and another story, "The Kitty With the Black Nose," contain lessons about diversity, of all things. The pictures are derivative, as are most from the '20s, of Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Crane, but are not without their own charm.

The second, in what looks from the cover background to be from the same series of Rand McNally books as "Silky," is called Loraine and the Little People of Summer, by Elizabeth Gordon and illustrated by James McCracken (originally published in 1920, but reprinted in 1936). It's inscribed to my mother from her mother (Mummy would have been about 10). I was especially fond of fairy stories when I was little, so I can see why this would have been one of my favorites. Again, the pictures owe a great deal to the Art Nouveau sensibilities still making the rounds. Gordon, according to my research, wrote another Loraine book, involving the Little People of the Ocean.

Finally, my favorite of all: John Rae's Grasshopper Green and the Meadow-Mice, published by P. F. Volland Company whose wonderful logo can just be seen on the back cover, in 1922 (mine is the 16th edition). The front cover appears at the beginning of this post. The story is a marvelous riff on the Aesop fable about the grasshopper who fiddled away the summer and was then turned away by industrious ants. "Now you've probably wondered, just as I used to, whatever finally became of that Grasshopper," says Rae. And off he goes. It turns out to be a story of redemption and friendship--and once again about diversity. Who'd have thought? To top it all off, the whole book, complete with illustrations, is available through the link, thanks to Project Gutenberg.

I was apparently still reading the book when I was in high school, because I recorded my grades in the back. That tells me two things. First, I was rather careless about where I wrote things (it's really an odd place to be writing down Freshman grades), and second, that it might well have belonged to my Uncle Art, since it would have been at Grandma Clarice's that I first read it.

The archaeology of childhood can be extremely revealing. I associate all of these books with places--the first two in Oregon, the last in the Owens Valley--which surprises me little. But they also reflect something about where my values come from: concepts of community, experiences of friendship, and even my aesthetic sensibilities.

I don't have any grandchildren on the horizon. But I do have friends with young children, and when they come to visit, I'll make sure that Grasshopper Green and the Meadow Mice is every bit as accessible as The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Mrs. Rudkin's Cookbook

One of the problems with having multiple blogs, even when they're focused on different topics, is that sometimes I'm not sure where to post something. This conundrum arose yesterday when I came across a wonderful book about which I wanted to make note--but couldn't choose the proper venue. This morning I decided to post it on both. This sounds a bit lazy, but since it's the product of a serendipitous occurrence and about the idea of home and place, maybe the idea isn't as silly as it seems even as I write.

The book in question is The Margaret Rudkin Pepperidge Farm Cookbook, illustrated by Erik Blegvad, and published by Atheneum in 1963. I found it in the "nostalgia" section of Half Price Books yesterday, where I'd gone to drown my sorrows after hearing about the resignation of a friend and colleague--the second in as many months--which left me feeling more than a little bereft. Beloved Spouse and I were on our way out when I noticed the rather Edward Gorey-ish spine of a book which, on first glance seemed to be another corporate promotional endeavor (some of which, like the Spice Islands Cookbook, also published in 1963, can be quite good)--but with amusing and well-crafted pictures scattered throughout. The dust jacket was missing, so what attracted me were the un-augmented images on the front (above) and back (below) covers.

Now, I'm as big a sucker for good illustration as I am for good cookbooks, so I said to myself, "What the hell; it's only ten bucks" and added it to my small pile of goodies.

When I got home, I started leafing through the book and discovered a treasure: a compendium of healthful recipes developed by the woman who had founded Pepperidge Farm (named for her own family's farm in Connecticut) and ended up serving on the board of Campbell Soup after she sold her company to them in 1961. In 2007, Fortune Magazine named her one of the century's fifty most powerful women. (Copies of the cookbook can be had from online used-book outlets like alibris for less than what I paid, but some may be the 1992 edition).

Margaret Fogarty Rudkin was born the same year as my Grandma Clarice, 1897, in New York. In 1937, when her son developed allergies that his doctor said could be addressed by feeding him bread made from whole grains, she began a journey that eventually led to the cookbook. 1963, when Rudkin published it, was the year after I returned from Taiwan and during which I lived with my grandmother, so the coincidence adds to my delight in finding the book when I did.

The illustrator, Erik Blegvad, is actually no stranger to my family. One of my children's favorite books growing up was Judith Viorst's The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (which I highly recommend to families for helping them deal with the death of a pet)--illustrated by none other than Mr. Blegvad.

During my recently aborted attempt to improve my typographic skills (I had to drop the class because midterm madness caught up with me), I had run across another book by Blegvad that's probably worth looking for: Types Best Remembered/Types Best Forgotten, published by Parsimony Press in 1994. But the cheapest edition I could find through alibris is $69. Guess I'll wait on that one.

At any rate, owning Rudkin's cookbook is really like having several books in one, because each chapter focuses on an entirely different topic: Childhood, Country Life, Pepperidge Farm, Cooking from Antique Cookbooks, and Ireland. Each features a chatty and informative introduction, and the "antique cookbooks" chapter offers modern versions of such goodies as a fifteenth-century pumpkin pie, although the original carries this warning: "Cassius, who was bothered by colic and stones, did not eat this. It is difficult to digest and nourishes badly." Rudkin's version is much more palatable (perhaps because she doesn't put in a half pound of sow's belly), and simple to make:

Preheat oven to 450.

Ingredients: (Plain pastry for a 9 inch single-crust pie.) 1.5 cups canned pumpkin, 2/3 cup brown sugar, 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. ginger, 1/2 tsp. salt, 2 eggs, 1 c. milk, 1 c. cream.

Method: Line a 9-inch pie pan with pastry, making a high edge. Brush the pastry all over with egg white. Place in the refrigerator while preparing the filling. Mix together the pumpkin and the spices. Sift the brown sugar into the pumpkin and mix well. Beat the eggs and add them. The add the milk and cream and mix well.
Pull out the shelf of the oven, set the prepared pie pan on the shelf and carefully pour the filling into the crust. Don't pour all onto one spot., but take a cupful at a time and spread the filling around to avoid breaking the crust. Filling the crust this way avoids spilling.

Bake at 450 F for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and bake 45 minutes more until the custard is set.

The idea of simple food, lovingly prepared is always welcome, but I think we can especially appreciate it in times when folks no longer eat together all that often, and when grandmothers and their grandchildren can be separated by continents. My memories of times in my grandmother's kitchen come flooding back when I find a book like this, grounded in a similar view of the world and a similar notion of nurturing. My fondest wish is that more people come back to the practice of spending time cooking together as gas gets more expensive and makes folks less likely to run out to the Olive Garden for a family meal. There is absolutely nothing like a home-made pumpkin pie to make us feel secure and comfy--and nothing like a well-illustrated, well-written cookbook to help us recall the relationship between food and home.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Heavenly Visions

While I was preparing an augment for this week's History of Art & Design II lecture on the Fin de siècle, I spent some rather enjoyable hours looking through various sites that offer images of natural history illustration in the late nineteenth century. I'd already been inspired by the Haeckel book mentioned on my last post, and in addition to the various pages devoted to his work, I also happened on the New York Public Library's Digital Image Library and its collection of drawings by the French astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot (1827-1895). The images are of chromolithographs produced from drawings Trouvelot made while observing such heavenly bodies as the moon and Mars.

The drawing of the moon is quite fanciful and suggestive of the Art Nouveau designs that would shortly follow in France, England, Austria, and other parts of the Continent:

A crater on the moon was later named after Trouvelot:

Compare Trouvelot's almost floral interpretation with Galileo's drawing of what he saw, alongside a photo of the spot:
Trouvelot's image of Mars almost suggests an embryo, but it's quite simple to understand how he came to his conclusions about what his telescope showed him, because I get an image close to this when I look through my very basic backyard model:

The drawing records his observation at a precise moment: September 3, 1877, at 11 hrs. 55 min. P. M.

My favorite image Wunderkammer, Wikimedia Commons, produced some interesting and varied finds under the general rubric of science illustration. You really need to search using "science" as your keyword, because the illustrations show up under general topics such as "biology" (which would eventually lead you to Haeckel) or "astronomy." Looking through the Commons catalogue under "armillary sphere" in "history of astronomy" (under "astronomy"), for example, produced a lovely scan of Utagawa Kinuyoshi's Chinese Astronomer 1685. When it ran as Wikimedia's "Picture of the Day" it proved to be so popular that it was nominated for "Picture of the Year" for 2006.

There are also numerous diagrams from periods throughout history. These are often simple, elegant, and accurate--especially considering the lack of all the technological bells and whistles we have access to today. One of these is a 10th century CE Greek copy of calculations made by Aristachus of Samos (in the second century BCE) of the relative sizes of the sun, moon, and Earth:

Another drawing, by the Arab astronomer Nasir Al-Din Tusi, illustrates what's now known as a Tusi-couple, used to depict an aspect of planetary motion that Ptolemy described in his convoluted equant theory. Together with its clarity, and the elegance of the Arabic script, it combines calligraphic elements that exemplify good solid graphic design principles still in place.

I should probably end with what was one of my favorite discoveries of all--Tito Lessi's painting of Galileo and Viviani from 1892.

It's a wonderful emblem of the interest in science evident in nineteenth-century Europe that had a huge impact on the development of art and design, especially in terms of subject matter. I only hope that by introducing my students to the existence of this fascination they can play around with some of these sources and makes some discoveries of their own.

Photo credit: in addition to the images I've already credited, the first one I include is Universum, a montage by Camille Flammaron for the 1880 edition of his work, Popular Astronomy.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Encyclopedia of Life

My interests are pretty wide-ranging, and they include the natural world in general, and the interactions between geology and biology in particular. In fact, I was once enrolled in a graduate program to acquire credentials to teach earth and life sciences to middle schoolers. Anyway, by an odd progression of chances while I was checking out web sources on conceptual typography (!), I ended up reading the Chronicle of Higher Education's article about The Encyclopedia of Life. This ambitious project to catalogue all of earth's species (disappearing at an alarming rate as we speak), is described on the home page as "an ecosystem of websites that makes all key information about all life on Earth accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world." Right up my little collectivist alley.

I was drawn to the article in the first place by the fact that it was illustrated in the print edition of the Chronicle (I subscribe on the web, but often read the print copy in the library) by one of Ernst Haeckel's drawings--the very same Haeckel I'd blogged about a couple of weeks ago. This image, of Aulacantha scolymantha, from his 1862 monograph on radiolaria, was obtained by the Encyclopedia from a truly wonderful web page called Micro*scope: yet another discovery to make a frustrated bio-geologist's day. This site represents another collaborative effort and provides information and images on all manner of microbial life; it's also collaborative, and partnered with the EoL. If you register, you can get access to terrific (I think, anyway) screensavers, and a massive number of images like this one of a colonial radiolarian (say that three times quickly), by Dave Caron of the University of Southern California:

Now, I'm no marine biologist, but I love this stuff! I can't help but think that studying the incredible variety of forms available in nature would be useful and instructive to artists and designers everywhere.

The Encyclopedia of Life and its partners promise to bring together a Wunderkammer of information and images about the species on this planet. And if you want an idea of how bloody lucky we are to be here in the first place, take a gander at the National Geographic Channel's series, Earth: The Biography. Host Iain Stewart (terrific Scots accent), with the help of magnificent NatGeo footage, not only shows us where we come from, but how many chancy factors are involved. If more people understood these things, and knew more about what's at risk if we screw it all up now, perhaps our grandchildren would have a chance to enjoy it, too.

Addendum, 22 July: It occurs to me that I neglected to mention one important point. The perpetrator of the Encyclopedia of Life project is none other than E. O. Wilson, biologist extraordinaire and my favorite ant guy. He invented the field of sociobiology, out of which came one of my favorite books: Biophilia. He's gone a bit cranky in his old age, hankering as he is now for the Enlightenment, but his newer book, Consilience, is still a good read--especially for those of us somewhat sympathetic to his views. More summer reading, for the biodiversity-inclined.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Joss Whedon's At It Again

This just in (and only available until Sunday night): Joss Whedon's latest effort. Those of us who worship at the feet of the master are having enormous fun with this little curiosity, so do take the opportunity to check it out. Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog is an online musical miniseries starring Nathan (Mal Reynolds) Fillion and Neil Patrick (Doogie Howser) Harris, along with Felicia Day as the love interest. Nicely produced by Mutant Enemy (you know, the "Grrr. Argh" guys who brought us Firefly) and just plain fun, it's well worth several minutes of your time. And it's why I'm not posting any more today, because I need to get the whole thing watched.

It'll be back (see the Master Plan), but this is apparently it for now.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Angles of Repose

One thing always seems to lead to another, and its this serendipity factor that I enjoy most about living in the rarefied aether of the blogosphere.

Today, for example, I had no intention of posting here in the Cabinet. But I wanted to touch base with some of the blogs I frequent (I don't have automatic feeds to any of them, because there's already too much stuff to attend to in the various e-mail accounts), and went first to Serenity Now, another web Wunderkammer that originates not all that far north of me. Christie has been talking about fireflies and what to do with roosters, and after I'd posted comments I did what I often do: glanced at other commenter's blogs.

There I discovered Sweet Repose, where "lives" a retired Iowa antiques dealer who had recently posted on chamber pots. After leaving a small reminiscence there, I started musing on the blog's title, and this old gal's mind wandered to--Wallace Stegner's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Angle of Repose, which I read last summer, not long after having re-read the late Ellen Meloy's The Anthropology of Turquoise. Meloy was a long-time Stegner fan, and all three of us share California connections--although mine involves a different side of the Sierras than either of theirs do. Meloy died young, but not before writing several really evocative books about western wilderness. Stegner, during his stint as the director of Stanford's creative writing program, influenced the likes of Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Ken Kesey, and Larry McMurtry. For more of my take on related topics, see my Owl's Farm post from last year, "Writing the Desert."

I should mention that I'm not reading much fiction these days (except for good hard science fiction), but I became so absorbed in Stegner's book that I ended up doing a bit of research on the inspiration for the novel: the life and work of Mary Hallock Foote. There's a nice profile of Stegner on the California Association of Teachers of English site, and it succinctly describes the controversy that arose over Stegner's use (with the permission of her granddaughter) of Foote's letters as the basis for his novel. Although fiction, the accounts of Susan Burlington Ward's experiences as a turn-of-the-century eastern Quaker in the American west (grounded as they are in Foote's actual life) resonate with what my grandmother described about living in California's Owens River Valley in the early twentieth century. At any rate, what emerges from the confluence of the novel and what I learned about Foote is further confirmation that other people's lives overlap in unexpected ways to enrich our own when we're paying attention.

Were my grandmother and my father still alive, the books I list below would have been taken home during my then-annual pilgrimages back to the valley and offered up enthusiastically on the family literary altar for reading and later conversation.

In their memory, my Summer Reading Recommendations, for anyone interested in topics like desert ecology and life, the history of mining in the West, the history of California, Victorian women in the west, and some damned good writing, are as follows:

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose.
Ellen Meloy, The Anthropology of Turquoise
Rodman W. Paul, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote (Huntington Library, 2003)

Online resources:

Mary Hallock Foote
Ellen Meloy
Wallace Stegner and the text of his Wilderness Letter

I hope you've got a good hammock in your back yard, and a large supply of cold-brewed iced tea.

Photo: A Hammock, by Dennis Mojado. Wikimedia Commons

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Medieval Garden Enclosed

I remarked to a colleague during a meeting this week that the only people who read blogs are those who write them--or who are related to the bloggers. But occasionally I come across a blog that needs to be shared because it has worth beyond the blogosphere, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new effort, The Medieval Garden Enclosed is one of these.

The Cloisters Museum and Gardens at the Met are among its most popular exhibits, in part because medievalism enjoys frequent revivals in popular culture, but mostly because of the Unicorn Tapestries and the gardens. The exhibit itself is an exercise in virtual reality, with its reconstructed Romanesque enclosures, and the variety of works that transport us back to the Middle Ages. I've spent a good deal of my adult life studying the effects of medievalism on the development of modern art, and the Cloisters is always my first stop whenever I get to New York. Since I don't get there much any more, this blog will provide a nice touchstone.

The most recent posts are on lavender, an herb that grows beautifully here in Texas (even though I don't have much success with it), and is the best sleep-inducer of all time.

I look forward to reading the blog regularly, not only for its inside view of the Cloisters exhibit itself, but for the practical advice on medieval herbs and plants--a topic many of us just can't get enough of.

Photo: the Cuxa Cloister Garth Garden, nicked from the blog.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Old Timey Information Technologies

Even before I learned the word "steampunk" I was fascinated by older technologies that feature interesting designs or gizmos that make them cool-looking, even today. The early typewriters are a good example: those big clunky Underwood models with the keyboards whose style of letters have become ubiquitous among the scrap-booking crowd (you can buy alphabets that look like the keys at any hobby shop), and the various manifestations of the letter forms themselves. My favorite among these is P22's version, "Typewriter," which I use on some of my web pages. It's got a slightly worn aspect that reminds me of what typed letters looked like when I was a kid.

But the particular technologies I've been thinking of lately are the immediate ancestors of the web itself--what we used before we could simply Google something, or browse a library's catalogue online. I was reminded of microfilm and microfiche when I finally picked up the second volume of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, The Subtle Knife. In it, Will (one of the kid heroes) goes into a library and looks up news reports of his father on microfilm. Today, many libraries will have digital copies of these stories, but during most of my graduate career, microfilm was where we had to go, and microfiche was how we got there.

The immediate predecessor of microfiche catalogues was, of course, the handy dandy card catalogue (a term which librarians I know still use without thinking sometimes--"Go look it up on the card catalogue"). At UC Riverside, where I started out, the catalogue was several drawers high and gazillions of drawers long--on two sides of an aisle. When I got to Penn, there were several, one in each specialty library, but I don't remember if there was one grand central catalogue--although surely there must have been one. I still possess a six-drawer unit salvaged from the basement of Bennett Hall, where I worked, and where the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was located at the time. The box had been painted an abysmal pink, which, when removed, revealed the same quarter-sawn oak I now have underfoot in my house.

My Bennett Hall office (I administered fellowships and scholarships for the Grad school) also housed a couple of IBM Selectric typewriters--cutting-edge technology in the early seventies. When one was stolen, however, the replacement was bolted onto a rolling typewriter stand made to hold an old non-electric model. The stand, which I also still have, features a side shelf that sits up about two inches from the bottom of where the typewriter would rest, to make it easier to copy handwritten text.

My all-time favorite typewriter, however, is a little portable Olivetti Lettera 22. It was given me by my mother's Italian boyfriend, an Olivetti salesman, when I left Taiwan, and I have it still. Its script type was extremely difficult to read, but it was what I had (before I discovered typing labs in college), so I actually wrote my first college papers on it. This practice came to an end rather abruptly when an archaeology professor--even though he thought the paper was so good he glued five round paper hole-reinforcers (do they still make these?) on it and colored them yellow with a highlighter because he "didn't have any gold stars"--told me that my typewriter "could drive a man to drink." Despite the A+ on my assessment of the Linear B decipherment controversy, I never used that machine for a paper again.

Nowadays, of course, few of us give even a passing thought to these old, obsolete or at least obsolescent ways of locating information and transcribing it. The computer does it all. Nonetheless, our technologies have a way of affecting what we write and how we write it, so it seems prudent to remember where we've been in order to assess where we're ending up.

The first computer in our family was a Commodore 64, with an eight-page file memory in the first version of Word Perfect I ever owned. So I wrote papers that were multiples of eight pages, and became adept at producing 32-page graduate essays that I printed out on a dot-matrix printer (which some professors were reluctant to accept). Our family trudged into the digital age with a succession of IBM clones (one a Clone brand), and at one point I even served as the token humanities teaching assistant in the microcomputer lab at UT Dallas. In recent years, even though I think of myself as a slow-adopter, I've entered the twenty-first century at full tilt, with a hot-shot laptop computer and an iPhone. But I still miss the old clunky typewriters that required strong wrists and clear minds--because there was no "undo" function.

Too bad I'd never be able to find ribbons for that old Olivetti, or I'd dust it off and type something to my Uncle Art--who's probably the only person around who might get a kick out of it.

Photo credits: Typist, image from an old French postcard, contributed by Knyf; Olivetti Lettera 22 (first model) typewriter by LjL; The obsolete card catalog files at Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University, by Ragesoss. All from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Wikimedia Wunderkammer

Not that I need anything to occupy my time, since there seems to be so little of it these days, but I've been meaning to sing the praises of Wikimedia Commons ever since I started using it on a regular basis. Today's post will, I hope, be the first on the many wonders I've encountered there, and perhaps encourage my small coterie of readers to see what the Commons has to offer.

I have to admit that I was a reluctant convert to Wikipedia, because my students insist on using it as their first (and often last) source when conducting research. It's not that I have anything against Wikipedia itself, but it's an encyclopedia--a terrific instrument for school-age kids, but limited in actual content (my rule is: use primary sources first, whenever possible). But Wikipedia also lists multitudes of auxiliary sources, both in print and online, that can lead a student in productive directions, so although I still won't let them include it in a bibliography, I don't mind their consulting it for further information.

Yesterday, while engaging in one of my seemingly random web searches--this one on the nineteenth-century evolutionary biologist and artist, Ernst Haeckel--I discovered that the Commons contains the plates from the 1904 edition of his Kunstformen der Natur (Artforms of nature). The Wikipedia article on Haeckel had linked this collection, as well as some other really interesting web pages devoted to his work. Beloved Spouse was busy using a drum sander in our soon-to-be study, so I had time on my hands and went exploring.

In addition to an animated film about Haeckel's work, called Proteus, which I'll be ordering for our college library, the Wikipedia "external links" list included one to some gorgeous alpha channel transparencies of images from Kunstformen, by media artist Scott Draves, who links an online copy of the book, in German, with an index to all of the plates and a large-format .pdf version.

Inspired by what happened yesterday, today I went to the Commons home page and clicked on "Nature: Animalia" and then on "Mollusca: Gastropoda" and then on "Fossil Gastropods." Since I'm interested in natural forms and human design motifs, I figured that this would be a good place to look for spiral forms in nature for use in a new lecture in History of Art and Design I. Sure enough, there were scads of lovely photos--all available as public domain images or contributed under sharing licenses by a variety of good-hearted folk who, like me, might think that "intellectual" and "property" are mutually problematic ideas. I love the idea of the Creative Commons licenses, under one of which I published More News From Nowhere; I figure that anybody who might be even remotely interested in it shouldn't have to pay for it, especially given the novel's philosophical focus. Not that I don't think people should be paid for their work, but when ideas are floating around all over the place it seems absurd to start copyrighting and patenting stuff that's been out there for eons.

At any rate, I recommend meandering through the Wikimedia Commons at your leisure. I have found lovely photos to use on my blogs, such as those featured in today's post, and am happy to attribute them whenever possible. I'll probably start uploading some of my stuff, rather than trying to make a buck out of a lucky shot by putting it up on a stock photo sharing company site (even though it's the next best thing to the Commons, and one of my favorite former students works for one such outfit--so here's a plug, Lesa:

But now I have to get back to rehabbing our old house, and the business of sanding corners on my hands and knees. It's a lot more fun to go messing about among quaint and/or interesting topics and pictures, though, so I'll undoubtedly be doing so again soon.

Addendum, 24 July 2008: While making my weekly pilgrimage to the "new" section of the Kelley Library yesterday, I noticed--prominently displayed among the "check this out" selections--an absolutely gorgeous volume of Haeckel's work: Visions of Nature: The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel (Munich: Prestel, 2006). This is a terrific addition to our collection, and one that (once they can get their hands on it) should inspire a whole new generation of students. But I'm not giving it up until after the weekend, when I'll have a chance to drool over the magnificent photos of Haeckel's study and his own private collection of interesting oddities--as well as the wealth of beautifully reproduced prints. Oh, and there's actual information included in here, too!

Photo credits: Ernst Haeckel, Ammonitida (Ammonite), Wikimedia Commons. Thalamophora, from Kunstformen der Natur by Ernst Haeckel, .png file by Scott Draves. Viviparus glacialis; Borehole Rosmalen, Netherlands; Pleistocene: Late Tiglian, taken by Tom Meijer (PaleoMal), Wikimedia Commons.