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I love spring. Whoever designed the garden behind the Brooklyn townhouse I live in felt the same way. This unknown benefactor from the past planted three beautiful flowering trees which come into blossom at the same time (um, and a holly, but we’ll talk about that another time). The king of these trees (and maybe of all flowering trees is the Kwanzan flowering cherry (which I have celebrated in spring of years past, but there is also a dogwood and a purple crabapple.
I have been trying to plant flowers which come into blossom at the same time as the trees so as to have a perfect week of flowers. The tulips which I have found that work best are Leen Van Der Mark and Don Quichotte. Miami Sunset also unexpectedly bloomed at the same time (as did some white jonquils, which I rescued from a neighbor’s garden when it was replaced with turf).
This year the bleeding hearts (a perfect Brooklyn flower) also bloomed at the same time as the tree. There are also some primroses, hellebores, violas, and pansies in there too, but being a different scale, it is hard to see them. The April blossom garden is a success, but May should have some delights too, in the form of the iris, the peonies, and the azalea. Hopefully my Hydrangea was not nipped by the March blizzard to the point it will have no blossoms, this year. I guess we’ll find out. In the mean time enjoy the flowers!
For years my most popular blog post was about leprechauns…so I need to make some Saint Patrick’s art pronto! However before we get there, here are some weird green flounder artworks to lead up to the holiday. Spring is almost here, even if the thermometer says otherwise. Some kelly green artwork should remind us of that fact (even if flatfish are not traditionally spring green).
OK…for a second Valentine’s Day post, I wanted to post a beautiful crown with a heart at the center, however, although that concept certainly exists in cartoons and illustrations…and as endless rhinestone costume crowns (see example above), the actual item proved difficult to find. Yet, in the end, I did find such a crown. This is the Milford Haven Ruby Tiara, a real golden tiara with a real heart shaped ruby. It has found its way to the United Kingdom, but its history starts in Russia and runs through European nobility.
Here is a quote which describes the head spinning history of the piece: “A gold tiara in kokoshnik form, set with faceted and cabochon rubies and diamonds in the form of stars and crescents, fleurs-de-lys, trefoils and a central radiant heart. Several of the motifs can be detached and worn as brooches. Made by Bolin, for the Grand Duke Michael Michaelovitch, grandson of Tsar Nicholas I, for his bride Sophie de Merenberg, Countess Torby. It passed to his daughter, Countess Nadejda of Torby, who married Prince George of Battenberg (later the second Marquess of Milford Haven).”
Whatever the provenance, it is a splendiferous headdress! The ruby heart is beautiful, but the overall balance of the composition is the real treat. It looks like a magical spirit garden in heaven. Who knew something so ostentatious could be so subtle?
It has been a while since I blogged about my garden—which is a shame since it has been unusually beautiful this year. Alas, I am not an especially good photographer, but here are two little garden pictures so you can relive the end of May and the beginning of June with colored pencil drawings.
Night Ruler Iris (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink on paper)
Here is “Night Ruler” the dark violet iris which I blogged about last year. It had about two good days before a rainstorm knocked down the 4 foot flower spikes—but they were two GOOD days. There is hardly a flower more beautiful than the near-black German iris.
Livin’ Easy Rose (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, colored pencil and ink on paper)
Here is another beautiful flower, a floribunda rose named “Livin’ Easy” which is sort of a fluorescent coquelicot color. It is hard to get the vibrancy of the color of this beautiful little rose (and even more difficult to capture the heavenly smell). Maybe you will have to imagine the joy of rose season here in late spring/ early summer.
Today we have a special mystery: a strange sacred underground passage of great beauty which was constructed by unknown entities for unknown reasons. Shell Grotto in Margate Kent is an underground passage constructed entirely of seashells (or, I should say, the walls and ceilings are entirely lined with shells). The passage is 2.4 meters (8 feet) high and 21 meters in length (69 feet) and terminates in a 5 x 6 meter (16 foot by 20 foot) chamber colloquially known as “The Altar Room.” The entire complex is hewn out of the native chalk of Kent and extensively decorated with vaults and decorative mosaics made of local mussels, cockles, whelks, limpets, scallops, and oysters (although winkles from as far away as Southampton.
The complex was “discovered” in 1835 and has been the subject of much speculation ever since. Some people assert that it was a prehistoric astronomical calendar (?), a special space for Templar or Freemasonry ceremonies, or an 18th century nobleman’s folly. The first mention of it in the press is from 1838, announcing its forthcoming opening as a public attraction. My own hypothesis is that the grotto is a Victorian attraction.
Originally the shells had their vibrant natural colors, but after long exposure to flickering Victorian gaslights they had blackened and faded. Fortunately, Shell Grotto is protected as a Grade I listed building of special historical and cultural interest (although no archaeologists seem particularly interested, which reinforces my “Victorian tourist trap: hypothesis). Whatever its provenance, Shell Grotto is certainly impressive. It is estimated that the builders, whoever they were, employed about 4.7 million shells to make the complex. Their initiative and hard work have paid off: Shell Grotto has a mysterious oceanic splendor and beauty all its own. The enigma of its nature only adds to its picturesque (but haunting) charm.
A photo of my garden in Brooklyn (April 17th, 2016)
Until last week it was a slow cold spring in Brooklyn—but, then, suddenly, the season sprang into action in a flurry of beautiful colors. The tulips leaped up out of nowhere–although the accursed squirrels are beheading them as fast as they bloom–and the cherry tree blossoms are just beginning to open (more about that later). Here is a picture of my garden the other day: you can see some of the classic Dutch-style tulips and the bleeding hearts over in the left corner.
However I wanted to draw your attention downwards to a flower that barely makes it into the picture because of its delicate tininess: the muscari or grape hyacinth—a diminutive but exceedingly lovely plant. Muscari originated in Central Asia, Asia Minor, North Africa, and the Mediterranean Basin. The little flowers bloom in temperate woodlands of the region’s forests early in spring before the trees have a chance to set leaves. They propagate easily and can become beautiful purple, blue, and white carpets on the woodland floor. Muscari have escaped the garden and naturalized in parts of North America, Asia, Africa, and Australia.
Grape hyacinths have that name for a reason: they are botryoidal and take the form of a pyramidal cluster of grapes (although each individual blossom is actually a tiny urn). The effect is enchanting up close. At a distance the little urns become indistinguishable. In fact the individual plants blend together into an amalgamated mass of color–and what a color. The finest feature of grape hyacinths are the exquisite hues. They come in pale blue, white, and (lately) steely pink, but the most characteristic color is also the finest—an incredible blue-violet with a glaucous shimmer.
I have always wanted a vast field of muscari, because they begin to take on the otherworldy haunting qualities of their relatives, the bluebells. From a distance, large numbers of muscari look like rivers or oceans or the surface of alien aquatic worlds. They are just beautiful! Hopefully mine will keep expanding so that future springs will be even more dramatic.
OK, I promised everyone a Halloween treat, and here it is. This past year I spent some time (ahem, well, actually hundreds and hundreds of hours) working on an art toy–a 19th century-style miniature theater for action figures! It is sized for four inch tall action figures because I grew up with Kenner’s “Star Wars” figures. I made the toy with a jigsaw, a lathe, and plywood. I painted/drew the images with watercolors, color pencils, markers, and Photoshop! Since I used Photoshop I can print eveything up and make as many as I like! However I haven’t finished scanning all of the backgrounds in yet and altering them (and I still have a couple more backgrounds I want to make).
The proscenium arch shows the musical competition between Apollo and Marsyas, an evocative tale which reveals dark truths about art. I have showed the contest instead of the outcome. On the left a nesting swan is left bereft because a cruel cupid has stolen her mate and shackled him to a chariot (he is flying away at the top). marsyas has heartbroken love and the muses behind him. Apollo has his dead python and a cold white temple The farms and cities of humankind can be barely glimpsed in the background behind them. Shears, a wineskin, shackles, and a flaying knife hint at the future.
On either side of the stage are great mock-Egyptian columns which support the aristocrats and rich folks in the top boxes. The best seat in the house go to the state–which I have represented on one side as a beautiful princess and on the other as an evil inquisitor (although if you look closely you will see they are the same person). The orchestra is filled with musicians and music makers from around the world like a serpent player, the devil with his fiddle, a splendid lyrebird, a ponce with a triangle, a vaudeville ukulele player in pancake makeup, and a toy monkey with some cymbals.
The wings of the theater fold out to show all of society. On the bottom are various groundlings like the shouting lout, the woman with her stupid iphone, my crooked ex business partner (with his vodka bottle), and a hungry walrus watching the fish tray above him. A couple of witches have slipped in without anyone noticing (Terry Pratchett would understand). The middle level is filled with thieves, lovers, merchants, and clergy people. The top level is filled with faceless shadow-folk on one side, and noble heroes on the other (notice the lady scientist, the luchador, and the martial arts master). The enraged colossal squid in the lower right was added expressly for this blog (although dedicated readers will notice many familiar elements).
I have placed some action figures from my collection inside the theater to give you a sense of scale–and of the play operas you could invent with your own action figures and toys!
Clever viewers will note that this is really a fancy frame with footlights. The real purpose is the interchangable sets–a collection of strange artworks featuring imaginary scenes from throughout history and the imagination. There is an ancient churchyard in front of a medieval church (notice the undead form and the megaliths on the moor beyond).
Here is French Colonial Timbuktu. Effete er…elite officers ride by on a half-track as cobras and scorpions prowl the thronging marketplace.
I spent a long time drawing Hell. I was really afraid of hell when I was a child and I tried to capture some of those concepts in these horrible monsters and gruesome punishments. It is unclear whether it is hell or Diyu (if there is a difference). I wanted it to be beautiful in its depraved horror. There are burning cities and red deserts yearning for water…but the aqueducts are broken. There are churches everywhere because I figure hell will be full of the devout. After all, people who believe in Hell worship evil deities–gods who purposely created flawed spirits just to torture them forever. But maybe I am just angry about being scared so badly when I was little. I added pterosaurs because I like them, not because I think they were especially evil.
My favorite scene is the garden aviary (pictured in the first picture at the top). It is filled with beautiful flowering trees, spring bulbs, and birds from around the world. I put the tropical jungle half-set in front of it (see the arborial marsupials), but it sort of blocks the scenic vista. In fact I had all sorts of trouble photographing this. I am a better toymaker than photographer. Also some scenes are not finished (like the future city filled with post-humans and sentient robots, below). I also left the secret door on the back unphotographed. I will save it for a later day (but it is really cool and it also unifies the toy greatly). More to follow. In the mean time get out there and enjoy Halloween (oh, and direct some traffic over here, if you have a moment–I have been working hard making things for you to enjoy!).
Yesterday’s post was about the ancient Greek myth of how mint came into being. In the gardens and glades of the real world, there are all sorts of mints. This genus of asterid herbs is known as “Mentha” (linguists believe the name came into Greek from an extinct pre-literate Indo-European tongue). There is peppermint, catnip, and apple mint. There are spearmints, different pennyroyals, horse mint, and even something ominously called gray mint. However botanists cannot agree on how many species of mints there actually are. The different varieties hybridize so frequently (and produce such fecund offspring), that it is unclear where the species lines are.
Mints live around the world in temperate regions across Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and North America. They can reproduce asexually or through aggressive fast-growing runners. Mint flowers are white and purple “false” whorls. Every gardener is aware that mint can swiftly spread from a little pot into a nightmarish tangle of junglelike weeds. The plant is aggressive and invasive and perennial. Humankind’s ancient fondness for different mints also have further ensured that it is distributed everywhere.
Peppermint get its peppery flavor from menthol. The spiciness of pennyroyal comes from a compound called pulegone, and spearmints get their flavor from a turpenoid known as L–carvone (which is why spearmint oils can be used as solvents). These compounds are non-toxic to humans (although there are people who are allergic to mint) but they tend to powerfully effect insects. Mints can be effective insect repellants or even downright insecticidal.
I said that mint is non-toxic to people (in reasonable amounts) but that doesn’t mean the herb is not psychoactive. Increasingly it seems likely that mints are effective anti-nauseants and they might also contain potent stimulants. I hedged that sentence somewhat: despite humankind’s long love affair with this ancient herb, it has not been fully studied by science. Maybe there is a reason mint tea and candy is so popular!
Canna is the only genus in the family Cannaceae. The genus consists of 19 species of flowering plants from the tropical and subtropical regions of the New World. Although sometimes called “lilies” they are not true lilies at all–their closest relatives are the bananas and the arrowroots.
Canna flowers are notable for huge colorful stamens—the highly modified structures of which are mistaken for petals (cannas actually have tiny easily overlooked petals). Although cannas are a rich source of starches, they are predominantly known as ornamental flowers and they are grown as annuals far outside of their native tropics. They are popular around the world, and indeed they have become invasive in Old World tropical regions of Asia and Africa.
My roommate and I went to the flower nursery and she insisted on buying a canna (which I then thought looked vulgar and tacky) for our shared garden. Yet the canna has proved itself a worthy garden plant many times over. Not only are its pretty flowers an unrivaled shade of fire-engine red, it is also vigorous in the sweltering July heat and it beautifully matches the giant green elephant ears which I have planted. The garden looks strangely tropical and magnificent with these exotic yet hardy plants. Maybe next year I will be looking for cannas of additional colors. It is a really lovely flower. I am sorry I initially dismissed it because of its unusual shape! There’s probably some sort of lesson there…
June is the season when the roses bloom—both the everblooming modern roses which bloom all season long and the classical garden roses which have a beautiful inflorescence once a year—in June (that sentence turned out to be quite circular). Here are three small watercolor paintings of my garden this week. We were tragically short of roses, till my goodhearted roommate purchased one (it’s a cerise and cream hybrid tea rose from the seventies known as “Double Delight”). She purchased it, but I lugged it home from the distant nursery by brute force and planted it—so I guess it’s a mutual project.
I am going to try to feature more small paintings like this—daily impressions of pretty things and outlandish doodles–particularly as I transition back to running the rat race every day. Let me know what you think!