Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas for the Birds

Every year about this time, big flocks of robins descend on our cotoneaster bushes to eat the orange berries. Somehow the word spreads that the berries are ripe or perhaps even fermented. It is impossible to have a gloomy thought, with all the soaring, diving, jostling, chirping and sheer birdy exuberance going on just outside the window. Four or five birds at a time gorge on the berries while others wait in the nearby trees for their turn.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Christmas Story

Lambros, a thin little boy, was our downstairs neighbor when we first went to the Farm School in northern Greece. He lived with his parents and little brother in a two-room apartment like ours. In the winter, his mother closed all the doors and the family lived in the front room, where there was the tiniest imaginable wood stove. She kept the pine floors scoured with caustic soda so that they were smooth and almost white.

There were four pallets in the room during the winter. "My husband and I do not sleep together," the mother explained to me. "We cannot afford more children."

When Lambros brought home a bad grade, his mother spanked him, outside, so all the neighbors could see and hear. In those days, this was not considered child abuse. "I told you to bring me an 'A'," she would shout. She believed his entire future depended on his doing well in school, and she may have been right.

One Christmas Day, I wrapped a small toy,  took it downstairs, and knocked at Lambros' door. "There!" his mother shouted as she snatched the gift from my hand. "I told you, Lambros, that Santa Claus would be coming! You see, he took your gift to the neighbor by mistake!" And Lambros' skinny little face lit up as he held out both hands for the present.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Babette's Feast

It wasn't easy, trying to assemble a mince pie this year. Joy of Cooking had a recipe which made 20 pies and called for four pounds of chopped beef or ox heart and two pounds of beef suet, clearly not what we wanted. A search of several stores finally produced a small jar of  Crosse and Blackwell mincemeat, barely enough to fill the pie shell, and when the top crust went over this ungenerous filling, it sank, split and cracked.

Babette's Feast was a movie about a woman whose art was cooking. When she won a large amount of money, she spent all of it buying ingredients for a fabulous meal. When someone said to her "But now you don't have any money", she replied  "An artist is never poor."

I told this story to my dear departed painter friend Howard once and it made him cry. I thought of it when I looked at the ruined pie I had hoped would cheer Nicodemus up. Holly patches of red and green pastry seemed a possibility. The power went off and then back on while the pie was baking, and after two hours, I was surprised to see that the oven was still cold, the pie unbaked. 

I guess I am some kind of artist, though I don't know what kind. I do know that I hardly ever feel poor, no matter what my finances look like.  Nicodemus was ecstatic about the pie.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


When Nicodemus is gilding one of his icons, there are little flecks of gold everywhere, in his hair and beard, on the table, floating around.  Long before the word meant a picture on a computer, since more than 15 centuries ago, icons have been venerated in Eastern Orthodox churches all over the world and in the homes of Orthodox people.

Copying an existing icon is not bad form; in fact, the Christian saints are pictured in certain stylized and typical ways which most hagiographers or icon painters observe. Saint Peter always has white curly hair, for instance, whereas Paul is bald, with a little tuft of hair above his brow line.

I asked Nicodemus to outline the steps in painting an icon in the Byzantine style.
1. Select a piece of poplar, wide and thick and not too hard, making sure it is flat. Miter four separate pieces of lath and glue to the board to form a frame.
2. Sand the wood, starting with coarse sandpaper and progressing to Number 1500 grit.
3. Begin primer coats with a coat of gelatin, marble dust and water, with five or six thick coats and then five or six coats of thinner gesso. Sand to a mirror surface (some painters put a fabric layer down before the last coats.)
4. Trace your picture and scribe all the lines into the gesso so they will be visible during painting and gilding.
5. Use masking fluid around the edge of images.
6. Paint six coats of clay bole onto the area to be gilded and sand to a mirror finish. Glair, the froth of egg white, is added to the bole to strengthen it.
7. For water gilding, paint ethel alcohol over a small area, cut a half piece of gold leaf onto a piece of leather and apply to icon with a gilder's brush, dropping it onto the wet spot.
8. Gild up to the scribed, masked area. Press gold leaf to make sure it is bedded in.
9. Burnish the gold with an agate, rubbing vigorously over the nearly dry gold leaf.
10. Faulting: Re-gild missed places, burnish to a perfect shine and dry.
11. Remove masking fluid for a sharp edge to the painted figure.
12. Paint face, hands, etc., dark, using the petit lac method, and do a dark first coat for clothing.
13. Apply the first level of lights and reinstate features from scribed areas with a fine brush.

The painting then proceeds from dark to light, using natural minerals mixed with egg yolk and distilled water. The edges of the frame are painted with maroon or cadmium red. Letters which tell the subject or the name of the saint are painted with oxgall onto the gold and then finished with egg tempera.

The little madonna was one of Nicodemus' first icons, and it remains my favorite. The pose is called "eleiousa" or "the merciful", and the child is looking out toward the angels who are holding a cross and a spear, the instruments of his martyrdom. The mother is worried, as mothers tend to be, but the child is only interested and curious.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Night of Lights

Last night: We are blocking all the cars in a full parking lot, emergency blinkers on, flat tire, trying to phone Triple-A on a cell phone we never use, and I am supposed to accompany the community chorus in fifteen minutes, using a toy piano which works on flashlight batteries. Through the door to the little mall courtyard where the music is supposed to happen, we can see belly dancers in somewhat middle-eastern costumes and bangles, and an angel walking on stilts. I believe in parking gods, so I asked for help. Within 13 minutes, not only one, but THREE parking places appeared and the AAA truck had come and changed the tire. We  picked up the music stand, the toy piano, and the scores, set up in the mall and started playing as the chorale began to sing with their lovely pure voices. Joy to the world!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Song of Survival

The community chorus for which I play the piano has a number of very senior citizens as well as young folk who like to sing. I have to sit down to play the piano, of course, but there are singers who have to sit down because they can't really stand, at least not for very long. Some of them walk with canes, and some have to take the very slow chair lift up to the second-story hall where we rehearse.

One of the things they are practicing for a program next week is a medley of Christmas songs from the documentary film, "Song of Survival", whose story was also told in a commercial film called "Paradise Road".

During World War II, in 1942, two women interned in a concentration camp in Sumatra wrote out in pencil, on scraps of paper, whatever music they could remember--orchestra music, piano pieces, hymns-- and taught the women prisoners to sing them in a four-part chorus.  Some of the women were so weak from malnutrition that they could not stand; they were barefoot and dressed in rags, plagued with tropical sores. Still they sang until more than half of them had died. The survivors said the music gave them the strength to go on.

In 1980, the original pencilled manuscripts were given to Stanford University; they were transcribed, performed by the Peninsula Women's Chorus, and then published in 2000.

The women in our community chorus, especially the very senior citizens, are singing these pieces with special beauty and fervor. These women are not prisoners. They wear nice clothes and are not malnourished, but many of them suffer from  various medical problems and physical limitations. They have their own reasons for feeling the Song of Survival very deeply. One of the women told me that when she sings this music, she usually has to sing it through her tears.