Archive for July, 2012

The Minnie Evans Bottle Chapel at Airlie Gardens, Wilmington, North Carolina

I have always drawn, painted and written since I can remember. …

I will always draw and paint and write as long as I can remember.

Virginia Wright-Frierson, designer of the Bottle Chapel

Design Made at Airlie Gardens (1967)
Minnie Evans
Born: Long Creek, North Carolina 1892
Died: Wilmington, North Carolina 1987
Oil and mixed media on canvas mounted on paperboard
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gift of the artist

The bright colors and floral motifs that appear in her paintings were most likely inspired by trees and flowers, especially azaleas, at Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, where Evans worked as the gatekeeper for many years.

“My whole life has been dreams . . . sometimes day visions . . . they would take advantage of me,” Evans once said. She also recalled that in 1944 a fortune teller informed her that she was “wrapped completely in color….”

–  Regenia A. Perry, Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in Association with Pomegranate Art Books, 1992).

Virginia Wright-Frierson on July 26, 2012 making repairs to the chapel in preparation for her son’s wedding.

Please do not climb trees, enter water areas, or step into planted gardens.

= Airlie Gardens photography policy


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Grandma’s quilt, drying.

We do not live an equal life, but one of contrasts and patchwork; now a little joy, then a sorrow, now a sin, then a generous or brave action. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Last weekend I bought a box of Ivory Snow and hand-washed my grandmother’s quilt in the bathtub. The water turned the color of strong tea, and never did run completely clear. But I got the worst of the dust of some 30 years off it, and Ernesto hung it gently on the clothesline where it dripped for one full day and then finally dried completely on the second. It looked so beautiful. I had a good view of it from the desk in the office, and for the first time I could see the pattern of the stitches and not just the triangles of fabric. The triangles were pieced together to form hexagons, and the stitching was done in concentric hexagons. As the sun set, a low, golden light made it look bright and fresh. I would have liked to leave it hanging there as an ornament.

Many years ago I wrote a draft of a failed novel. It didn’t really get off the ground good, but it had its moments–a little joy, some sorrow, a dash of sin. The main character was a young married woman, Melanie, whose marriage goes pear-shaped. About the same time, her grandmother instigates a fracas by opening her home as a bed and breakfast against the advice of Melanie’s father. Melanie moves to the B&B to sulk and sort things out, which makes her father even madder. Other things are going on, too—not many, it was, after all, a failed first draft—but one of the subplots involved Melanie’s sister, Vanessa, making a quilt. The entire family is aware of it, but no one is focusing attention on Vanessa’s project given all the other crap going on. One afternoon Melanie goes up to her grandmother’s attic for something and discovers that Vanessa had vandalized every wedding gown and bridesmaid dress that the ladies of the family had carefully packed away. Vanessa had cut bits and pieces—mostly along the hemlines—for her quilt. Melanie raises a big stink over the desecration of her own wedding gown, which seems to her emblematic of the damage to her marriage. But all Vanessa wanted to do was weave together a lot of particularly beautiful bits of fabric into something splendid.

Now that I’m thinking about that extremely unsuccessful story again, it occurs to me that Vanessa’s quilting was also an attempt to hold things together when so much in her family seemed to be falling apart.

Quilts do bind things together.

I’ve always thought of writing as similar to quilting but without such a happy ending. I collect fragments, flotsam and jetsam, bits and pieces, and whipstitch them together in stories and letters. It doesn’t make the same splash as a real quilt, though, and it can’t keep you warm or make you feel better when you’re sick in bed. A few months ago, when it was not 103 degrees every day, I met several friends for lunch. We climbed out of two cars in the parking lot of a little café, and before going inside Mary K. pulled out a quilt she’d made for her granddaughter. We each took a corner as she unfolded it, and the four of us spread it between us to admire. As I held up my corner, I wished so hard that I could make a quilt, but I cannot even sew buttons on properly. I admire my quilting friends, Mary and Diane. They both create gorgeous bright patchworks that people will treasure for always, and pass along to their children. What a gift.

Another quilt story:  Last fall at a university luncheon I sat next to a nun. Sister Mary Ann was retired from teaching, but she still worked as a hospice chaplain and she told me she quilted when she had time. She had recently finished a quilt with heart appliqués for her 9-year-old great-niece. Then she had it appraised and was astounded when the appraiser valued it at over $2,000.  She believed this was thanks to all the careful hand-stitching. It caused Sister Mary Ann to fret about sending such an expensive quilt to a small girl. But she packed it up, insured it, and sent it off, hoping that the little girl would appreciate it at least a little bit.

Pretty soon Sister Mary Ann received a thank-you letter from the great-niece, who wrote that the quilt had been on sort of a traveling exhibition.  It went with her to school for show-and-tell, and she took it to a piano lesson to show her piano teacher. She reported, too, that she now made her bed every morning since she had such a beautiful heart quilt on it. Sister Mary Ann smiled. “Then, at the very end, she wrote, ‘You are creative and a real artist.'”

I could tell that Sister Mary Ann felt she had gotten her money’s worth.

One final patch.  Italo Calvino wrote:

Who are we, if not a combination of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly reshuffled and reordered in every conceivable way.

All right, I’m done. For the time being.

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Jennifer Wambach Designs

First Witch
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

My sister sent me a link to a recipe this week. She wrote   emphatically, using capital letters and three exclamation points, that I was not to try to make this particular dessert, she only wanted to share its name: Coagulated Curdle Cakes with Foam. She had been searching for something lemony and delicious, and this recipe popped up on Allrecipes.com. I loved the name, but felt a terrible sadness, too, because there was no photo with it. I wished very much to know what Coagulated Curdle Cakes looked like. So I decided to whip up a batch.

Second Witch
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

The recipe contained strange ingredients—things I did not have, and could not find at my local market: chickpea flour, powdered egg substitute. Probably the Schnuck’s near my house carries powdered eggs, but if it does I don’t know where they stash them. I decided not to bother with soy milk, and the chickpea flour wasn’t with the other flours in the baking aisle so I gave up on that. It only called for a small amount, anyway. I picked up powdered fruit pectin and headed home.

The recipe entails mixing dry ingredients with milk and other liquids, and separately beating egg substitute with water, sugar and fruit pectin. I assumed that I could use a real egg and eliminate the water, but I knew I was in trouble when the recipe said, “fold the egg mixture into the batter” and I realized that my batter was more of a soup. The scant amount of flour called for had been thoroughly drowned by the cup of milk, the half cup of water, and the 1/3 cup of lemon juice. The sugar and salt had dissolved, the baking powder had melted away, and the nutmeg and cardamom floated on top like dirt. (The salt and spices had been measured out in pinches, which seemed fitting with a cake that was both coagulated and curdled.)

I went through the motions of folding the egg into this hell-broth and poured it into small ramekins. The recipe called for using eight, but one of mine was in the dishwasher and one cracked some time back, so I divvied up the Coagulated Curdled Juice among the six and poured the extra down the disposal as a sort of sacrificial offering. I placed the ramekins on a round cookie sheet and slid it into the oven.

When I checked on them 30 minutes later, they were heaving and spitting like live things in their little cups. They needed another ten minutes for browning, and were still huffing away when they came out. Once on the cooling rack, they stopped struggling and deflated. The unholy mixture slid down the sides of the ramekins and left a hard rind along the sides.

I ate one as soon as I could comfortably handle the ramekin, but the lemony thing inside was still caustic and hot.  I only say caustic because it smelled a bit like a cleaning product. It didn’t taste bad, but it was really an inferior lemon pudding with a pocked, freckled skin pulled over it. I ate another one at room temperature, and a third after it had chilled in the fridge. It is unpleasant at every temperature, but I found it less disagreeable when hot. At room temperature it is similar to a lemon chess pie filling. It is also difficult to remove the sticky residue from the ramekins. Oh, well, I needed a new set anyway.

I suppose it isn’t fair to malign the Curdled Cakes, since I didn’t use the correct ingredients. Certainly I never achieved a “fluffy little cake layer” as the original recipe describes; perhaps three tablespoons of chickpea flour would have made a crucial difference.

Nevertheless, I’ve performed a public service: I added a photo to the Allrecipes site so no one else ever has to make these blighted cakelets just to see what they’d look like. (In fact, I accidentally added a total of seven photos to the site, because I was unclear on the concept and didn’t bother to read the instructions before posting. And now I can’t figure out how to delete the extra shots. If anyone else knows how, drop me a line.)

O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i’ the gains;
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.


(Quotations from Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. But you knew that.)

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I’m reading Wendell Berry: Life and Work, because I like Wendell Berry and wanted to learn more about his life and work. All right, and the book was deeply discounted when a local Barnes & Noble closed. It contains an essay by Barbara Kingsolver, “The Art of Buying Nothing.” In it she gives the best description of writing I believe I have ever read. But we’ll get to that in a minute. This is about the journey, as well as the destination, and there is plenty of nice scenery along the way.

Our journey begins, in fact, 25 years ago when Berry wrote a piece, published in Harper’s, in which he declared that he would never buy a computer (“Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer”). His reasons were plainly enumerated in a list of questions he asked himself before any purchase. In a tightly packed nutshell, these include: Can another tool do the same job, be more easily repaired, and consume less electricity? Berry wrote, “I would hate to think that my work as a writer could not be done without a direct dependence on strip-mined coal,” and vowed to continue writing with a pencil for everyday use, and a 1956 Royal standard typewriter for dress-up.

Kingsolver’s essay was written not as a response, exactly, but as a celebration of Berry’s attitude. She writes that she works hard to use Berry’s buying guidelines as her own, since she wishes to avoid acquiring the unnecessary things that are paraded before her in gleaming home-delivered catalogs, on television, etc.

I consider it no small part of my daily work to sort out the differences between want and need. I’m helped along the way by my friend Wendell, without his ever knowing it. He advises me to ask, in the first place, whether I wish to purchase a solution to a problem I don’t have. Down through the ages we’ve been threatened with these: ring around the collar, waxy yellow buildup, and iron-poor tired blood were all the products of a fairly unsophisticated advertising industry, and still they sent consumers running for the cure. Now the advertisers are psychologists; they are wizards. They convince us we must zip around and dazzle all who see us…. The siren song of needless want inflicts internal damage on people of every class. Buying new things accosts our stability, our satisfaction with ourselves and one another as we already were.  …

I have such respect for the art of buying nothing. It is honorable work to be happy just as we are.

Kingsolver is well aware of the societal pressures against buying nothing, and she relies upon Berry’s essay to keep her on the straight and narrow path. Happily, he accomplishes this in part by making her laugh. Here she quotes Berry describing his pro-consumerism critics:

[T]hey repeat, like a chorus of toads, the notes sounded by their leaders in industry. The past was gloomy, drudgery-ridden, servile, meaningless, and slow. The present, thanks only to purchasable products, is meaningful, bright, lively, centralized, and fast. The future, thanks only to more purchasable products, is going to be even better.

Then Barbara Kingsolver lays it out there: Much as she esteems Wendell Berry and strives to follow his doctrine of buying less, she writes on a computer.  This being so, she understands that her work had better be good to make it worth the price of the energy it costs to produce:

“When somebody has used a computer to write a work that is demonstrably better than Dante’s,” Wendell declares, and when the computer is proven to be the secret of that success, then he says he’ll speak of computers with a more respectful tone (though he still will not buy one). Lord have mercy, but I’m not even entering that race. I am just aiming each day for a draft that’s demonstrably better than the gobbledygook I wrote yesterday….

And now, finally, here it comes—listen!

To save my life I can’t write a book from beginning to end. I seem to write them from the inside out, twisting them around like a dog trying to put on a pair of pajamas, panting and craning my neck until I’ve finally gotten the thing buttoned up, face forward, right side out. For that organizing miracle I need the help of strip-mined coal and a computer.

I’m pretty sure that this post has gotten twisted around, backside front. And that’s in spite of the use of a computer run on coal-powered energy.  What in the world would Wendell say?  Something sharp, I expect.

I loved her description of writing so much that I went to visit Barbara Kingsolver’s Web site in search of more good stuff. I found this beauty:

Pounding out a first draft is like hoeing a row of corn – you just keep your head down and concentrate on getting to the end.  Revision is where fine art begins.  It’s thrilling to take an ending and pull it backward like a shiny thread through the whole fabric of a manuscript, letting little glints shine through here and there. … I love that word “fabrication,” because making an elaborate fiction feels so much like making cloth.

With the right sort of cloth, you can make a spectacular pair of pajamas for a dog.


“The Art of Buying Nothing” in Wendell Berry: Life and Work, edited by Jason Peters. University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 2007.

Image source:  Whippet Snippets (http://www.whippetsnippets.com/2009/06/merch-of-the-penguins.html)

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I found a book some years back that almost appears to have been homemade. It’s called Handbook of the Bach Flower Remedies, by Philip M. Chancellor.  “Illustrated!” the yellow cover promises—without the exclamation point, but the word is printed very emphatically in black lowercase letters.

The idea that flowers might cure an illness is appealing to me.  What a soft, nontoxic sort of cure that must be—gentle, fragrant, like a blessing.

Chancellor’s book describes the work of Dr. Edward Bach, who created tiny brown bottles of flower and plant extracts that are dispensed with an eyedropper, which makes it all seem more medicinal to me. Bach developed a spectrum of cures in the 1930s: Honeysuckle for someone who feels stuck in a happy past and unable to enjoy the present; Crab Apple for general cleansing; Heather for persons who are unhappy if they have to be alone for any length of time. The Flower Remedies are quite specific. The most important remedy of all is the Rescue Remedy:

The Rescue Remedy is a composite Remedy which Dr. Bach formulated for use in emergencies.  It is not … a Remedy in itself, properly speaking; it is composed of five Remedies.  Nevertheless, because of the lifesaving possibilities inherent in the Rescue Remedy, it is almost an obligation for every practitioner to have some made up and ready for instant use.  Dr. Bach himself, and many of his adherents, both lay and professional, made it a practice to carry a small bottle of the Rescue Remedy with them at all times.  The Rescue Remedy could well save a life during an emergency when seconds count, and before qualified medical help arrives.


The five Remedies which compose the Rescue Remedy are:

Star of Bethlehem, for shock.

Rock Rose, for terror and panic.

Impatiens, for mental stress and tension.

Cherry Plum, for desperation.

Clematis, for the bemused, faraway, out-of-the-body feeling which often precedes fainting or loss of consciousness.

Use it for a great sorrow, for some sudden bad news.  Use it after any accident, whether severe or inconsequential…

We have been trying our own Flower Remedies this summer, all aimed at the inconsequential, day-to-day accidents like an inability to sleep. We planted lemon verbena, chamomile, and sage; we already had mint and lavender, basil, oregano, and a really nice rosemary bush. The fragrances alone are probably curative. Here are some of the remedies we’ve been trying:

Chamomile-mint tea. This has been a very nice tea, and it truly does seem to help us sleep. I use about a dozen chamomile flowers and six or eight mint leaves and steep them for about five minutes. Plain old mint tea is good, too, and is supposed to be good for the digestion.

Lemon verbena-mint tea. Not as delicious as chamomile, but a pleasant tea that is also relaxing but apparently should not be taken for more than 10 days in a row. That makes me nervous. There’s a recipe on The Splendid Table Web site for lemon verbena sorbet, and I intend to try that as soon as we run out of yesterday’s generous batch of (see next item).

Basil-buttermilk sorbet. I know. Basil belongs in pesto and buttermilk belongs in biscuits. But I got the recipe through the grapevine at work, and it is – exactly as promised – outstanding. The recipe is simple—the only ingredients not in the name are limes, sugar, and water—and the result is amazing. Choirs of angels sing every time I take the lid off the tub I packed it in. It is kind of like a margarita, and it’s the perfect cure for 108-degree days. I’m going to try a batch using some of our mint, and see if it tastes like a mojito.

Tonight we’ll be eating flank steak with homegrown sage. I’m not sure if sage has curative properties, but our plant is doing well with too much sun and not enough rain, and we expect good things from it.

It’s nice to eat (and drink) flowers and leaves from the garden, with or without medicinal value. This year, even the hydrangeas have looked edible, especially the classic snowball bushes, which have been particularly fine. They seem to thrive here even in extreme heat. There’s one house that I pass on my way to work that is surrounded by the most gorgeous snowball bushes I’ve ever seen—they are pure white, fresh, and beautiful. I told my mom that they looked so good, I was tempted to stop the car, pick a single blossom, and eat it like a snow cone. I imagine that it would be as delicious and cool as coconut cream. And I’m sure it would cure whatever ails me.

Annabelle hydrangea. Photograph by Don Sessions, http://www.donsessions.blogspot.com/

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