Sunday, July 10, 2016

Restoring an Iconic Link to Connecticut's Agrarian Past

Anyone who has ever picked berries, bought a Christmas tree, or taken a hay ride at the Auer Farm in Bloomfield, Connecticut has passed this building, sitting off by itself in a field on State Route 185 in Bloomfield.

Auerfarm is now an impressive education facility for the youth agricultural organization known as 4-H,, But its 120 acres started out as the property of Beatrice Fox Auerbach, the heir to the Hartford-based G. Fox department store chain, which held a prominent place in the state's retail landscape for most of the 20th century.

Most of the farm  occupies a scenic hilltop, but this structure sits by itself at the bottom of the hill, away from the farm buildings on the heights.  I could tell it was constructed for a specific purpose, with its masonry walls and interesting ventilation system. I'd assumed it was a smokehouse.

Turns out it was a mushroom barn, and in fact, a historically significant structure:  it's the only known barn in the state constructed of hollow clay tiles for the specific purpose of growing mushrooms. It's on the National Register of Historic Places.  It was used for cultivating mushrooms until 1946.  In the intervening years of disuse, its roof collapsed, compromising the entire structure.

Now the 4-H Education Center wants to save this unique barn, viewing it as a gateway to the property just beyond it at the top of the hill.  Its location could make it an ideal visitor center, farm museum, and store, former director Jack Hasegawa said in a report posted on the Auerfarm website,, The plan is to repair and repurpose it in three phases:  one, to replace the roof, stabilize the structure, and make it weather resistant; two, to clean the interior and restore the tiles; and three, to finish renovating the interior with the ultimate goal of creating the museum, visitor center, and store. 

I've been so intrigued by this building that when I heard about Meadow Life, a celebration of Connecticut's open spaces, sponsored by the Slater Museum of Norwich, Connecticut, I knew that I wanted to use that image to enter the show.

I created this image with wool roving, thread painting, hand embroidery, and an odd material called a cricula cocoon, something I got as a door prize at a meeting of the Connecticut chapter of the Studio Art Quilt Associates.

The landscape was accepted into Meadow Life, which is hanging at the Slater from June 12 through August 5.

When Meadow Life comes down, if no one has bought this piece, I'm donating it to Auer Farm as part of their fundraising project to restore the barn.  This fall, it will be offered--raffled? auctioned?  who knows--as part of its fall fundraising activities.

I'm really happy to be able to use my artwork to help restore this unique link to Connecticut's agrarian past.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Quinnipiac River Tidal Marsh Trail

I grew up right by the Quinnipiac River, but never spent much time on its banks, except for the place where it runs through Sleeping Giant State Park.  Once when I was there as a teenager, my friends and I saw a guy skinny dipping in the river, and as we watched, he emerged from the water and turned to face us, giving us a full frontal view of his hanging majesty.

Other people who swam in that river include my mother, Ruth Lorenson Cadrain, who grew up in the Fair Haven section of New Haven and used to swim at Dover Beach, a public beach along the river in New Haven.  She said there were whirlpools there. I can't find an image of Dover Beach.  It was so long ago.  My mother was born in 1910 so she must have swam or swum there in the '20s.

Now, many moons later, it turns out that an intrepid group called the North Haven Trail Association has created a walking trail beside the river's tidal marshes where it runs through that North Haven.  Joe and I found out about it from this article in the Hartford Courant:  http://www.courancom/news/connecticut/hc-marteka-tidal-marsh-trail-0424-20160423-column.html

You reach the trail from a parking lot behind a Target store...where else?  We walked it today.

This is the only time of year when it's possible to see this lovely combination of light, bright green leaves against gray and black tree trunks.  Later on in the year this view will be different: more shady, less interesting.

The river runs right along to the right of the path in this photo, down an embankment.  The tide was coming in at the time we were there.  There was an osprey nest down there with a parent and a chick in it.  I don't have a good enough lens on my camera to show you that, but nest, parent, and chick were all down there, in the reeds.

I found this on Google Images and it purports to be the same nest I saw today, or another one along the same river:

Speaking of reeds, today was the first time I've ever seen the Sleeping Giant against a backdrop of them:

Those reeds, by the way, are phragmites, and they're invasive.  I'm not sure why that's a problem.  They look good to me.

Sleeping Giant is in Hamden, Connecticut, several miles to the north of where we were.  But from the banks of the river, we could also see East Rock, to the south, in New Haven:

This isn't a very good image of East Rock, but you can tell it's East Rock by the monument on top of it.

Here's a better image of East Rock, for the record:

I can tell you, from experiences in my teenage years, that the top of East Rock, at night, is a good makeout spot.  Ditto the top of West Rock.

East Rock, West Rock, and Sleeping Giant are all traprock ridges.  Sleeping Giant is anomalous because it runs in an east-west direction.  All the other traprock ridges in the state, which include not only East and West Rock but also the Metacomet Ridge, and others, run north and south.

In addition to the reeds, there were other lovely flora blooming at this time of year:

This is a cherry tree.  Maybe.

This little item is Garlic Mustard, also known as alliaria petiolata.  Like the phragmites, it's invasive.  It was introduced from Europe as a culinary herb (two of its other names are Sauce Alone and Poor Man's Mustard).  The problem is that its vigorous growth forces out a lot of other native plants and decreases biodiversity.

I'm not going to worry about that right now.  It was a lovely day and a lovely trail.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Reaching In for the Inner Artist

It takes a leap of faith to pick up a felting needle--or a crayon, for that matter--and decide to create something with it.

Not so for little kids.  Little kids just pick up crayons and go for it.

Grownups sometimes lose that creative urge along the way because the inner critic kicks in and starts criticizing.

At the Chrysalis Center in Hartford, I'm getting folks to reach in and pull out that inner artist.

Look at Maribel, for example.  She's working on a needle felted image of Van Gogh's Starry Night.  She just picked up a needle and...went for it.  Here she is with her husband Berty.

I'm so pleased with her work, and I know she is.  She's been working on this for a couple of weeks and probably will go on for a couple of weeks more until she's done.  I love her persistence.

Here's Nina doing a sailboat with purple sails to honor the late, great Prince.

And how about Gil?  Look at this!  He's doing one of Van Gogh's wheat fields.

He has the feel for it, don't you think?

Friday, April 22, 2016

Garlanded Speech?

What's the name for an arrangement of words on a scroll, like this?

 Garlanded words?  Scrolled speech?

Whatever it's called, I needed to make one, but I didn't have any of the graphic arts tools, templates, or fonts that must exist to create something like this.

All I had was a pencil and some graph paper.  So, using the materials available, I wung it.

I think it was well-wung.

I learned something in the process.  When using a fine-tipped Sharpie marker to transfer this image to Pimatex cotton, I found that the letters bled.

This made me realize that the cotton needed to be treated with GAC 900, a polymer-type product that closes up the interstices of the weave and prevents bleeding.  I had to ditch this effort above, chalk it up to a learning experience, and try a second time with GAC 900.  With GAC 900, the Sharpie marker image stays crisp and doesn't bleed.

Here's the ultimate use for this garlanded speech, now that I have it transferred onto a piece of fabric.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Felted Labyrinths at the Windsor Art Center

It turned out that everyone had a satisfying time on Saturday, April 16, 2016, when I taught a class on the construction of a felted finger labyrinth at the Windsor Art Center, 40 Mechanic St., Windsor, CT.

What's not to like?  The materials are, quite literally, soft and fuzzy.  Finger-friendly.

People were happy with the process of making these as well as the end result:

Now it's been suggested that I lead a class in making felted beads.   They're really fun to make, and crazy easy.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Today in art: The felted finger labyrinth.

Today I'm getting ready to teach an upcoming workshop (Windsor Art Center, Saturday April 16, 2016, 10 am to 12 noon) for the construction of a felted finger labyrinth.  

The finger labyrinth is a tool for meditation, both in the act of its construction and in the practice of its use.

To use one, a person traces her finger along a defined path, in much the same way as a user of a traditional labyrinth traces a path with her feet.

The construction of a felted finger labyrinth involves using soft merino wool like this, in a variety of colors, of which this is just a small sample. This type of wool is called wool roving.  That name makes me imagine a roving bible preacher in the American old west, or an itinerant lawyer in the same setting.  Something or someone who roves. Those associations provide a dash of daring to a material  which is, otherwise, literally soft and fuzzy.

Can your eyes tell you how soft this material feels on your fingers?

You use a special barbed needle to poke that wool into a background printed with a labyrinth pattern like this:


The labyrinth pattern is traced onto a paperlike material called gossamer, a product made for party table coverings.   The gossamer, with the pattern on it, is sewn to a piece of commercial felt.   The whole is mounted on a piece of thick foam and provided with a special barbed needle.

And look at the points on those needles! There are barbs, too, which  you can feel more than see.

I have to tell you there's something therapeutic, in a tactile sense, about using those needles to apply soft wool roving to a soft substrate.

This young woman is a good example of the therapeutic power of needle felting.  In this photo, she's actually felting for the first time.  

Until the day when she decided to try needle felting, however, this young person reacted so viscerally against those needles that she wouldn't even cross the room to take a closer look at the other needle felters.  This was  at the Chrysalis Center in Hartford, Connecticut.

A couple of visits later, though, she changed her mind.  I traced a Cape Cod sunset on a piece of commercial felt for her.  With much help and encouragement from me, she chose her colors of soft wool roving and began applying it to the felt to create this scene.  After spending about 15 minutes at it, she opened up enough to chat with energy and joy about her pets.  Such  is the transformative power of the experience of needle felting. 

In fact, I have to say that guys in particular like the process.  My theory is that they like to, you know, poke things. 

Which reminds me: the concept of the labyrinth is, according to one school of thought, a correlative of the female genitalia.  

In the case of the felted labryinth, the finished product looks like the one on the right below.  On the left is a labyrinth in process.  And how do you like the box where I keep my needle felting tools? It's a gift from my daughter Leah, and a visual pun:  a spam box.

 Today I'm getting all my materials together for the workshop.  The patterns have been traced onto gossamer and mounted onto felt.  Now I have to measure and cut the pieces of foam.  

Of course the following thought is antithetical to the spiritual nourishment implied by the concept of the labryinth, and the practice of tracing one, but here it is:  There's a certain satisfaction in the act of repeatedly and forcefully stabbing a piece of foam like this.

In fact, I think this is why God invented the serrated kitchen knife.

Would you like to--uh, take a stab at making a felted finger labryinth?  If so, contact the Windsor Art Center at 860-688-2528 or  There's a fee of $30 for the class and $10 for materials.

Here's a link; the information about the workshop is near the bottom.  Please scroll down.
Here's a link with more information; please scroll down:  

Monday, April 4, 2016

Today at the Chrysalis Center

A total stranger called me on the phone last summer and said she wanted to learn fiber arts...and wanted me to teach her.  She said she found me through this blog.

My caller was willing to learn anything I could teach her...but it turned out that what she really wanted was for me to teach the clients of Hartford's Chrysalis Center, an organization serving homeless people, disabled people, mentally ill people, domestic violence victims, and veterans, among others.  I have to tell you that the Chrysalis Center occupies an old Sealtest plant in Hartford's North End, and that the North End has, in addition to many middle and working-class residents, more than its share of low-income people, people living in poverty, and the problems that go along with those conditions.

That telephone call came to me at exactly the right time in my life.  I had been feeling just a tad too cosseted and comfortable in my suburban existence, and, because I now get to spend so much time doing art, I had also been nagged by a guilty feeling of the need to Give Back.  Somehow. To someone.  I told myself that the opportunity would come, and that I would know it when it came.

The phone call was that opportunity.  It led me to gather my wits, put various woolly materials and felting needles into an Ikea bag and an under-bed storage box, and show up at the Chrysalis Center every Monday at 11 a.m. for an hour or two of needle felting.

Fast forward to today, a snowy Monday in April.  I've now been volunteering at Chrysalis for about seven months. When I lugged my Ikea bag from my van to the door of the Center, I had no idea whether there would be anyone there, given the snow, and given that under normal circumstances I never know how many people are going to show up on any Monday.

And six felting students showed up today.  Six.  That's a lot. Two of them were people who had been working with me more or less steadily over the past weeks, but several of them were new.  Because there were six, I was spread pretty thin, and you know what happened?  The two with the most experience worked with two of the newbies.  Those that I taught were now teaching others.  How gratifying was that?

One of the more experienced ones was Gloria, who originally came to me in tears and sadness, not only because she'd lost her home, but also because her much-loved husband was in prison.  Instead of working on her own design, which she started a few weeks ago, she showed one of the new people how to use the needles and the wool roving, and together they made an image of a cross with rays of light shining through.  Such an impressive statement of hope, for Gloria and for the newcomer whom she helped.

Kenny worked on completing his second felted piece and is thrilled to the moon and back with it.

He was experienced enough to be able to help Gil, who had never felted before.

Gil felted an aerial view of the Connecticut River, taken from a photo given to me by radio personality Chion Wolf.  He was pretty darn pleased with what he made, and so was I.

Maribel worked on an image of Van Gogh's Starry Night:

And then there was Olga.  She speaks three languages (Russian, Ukranian, and English), which I find very impressive.  But I don't think she felt very impressive when she first showed up. She was petrified of the felting needles.  She was so scared she wouldn't even cross the room to see what we were doing, and I could see her cringing into her parka.

Today she gathered up the nerve to come over and give it a try.  I gave her a sunset image from Cape Cod, which I thought she would like because it was both colorful and simple.  You can see that sunset scene in this photo.

When she first sat down, she was so nervous and frightened that she needed me to help her with every single step.  "I don't know what to do!"  she kept saying.  So I helped her, and I told her all along that she had the hang of it and was doing it and was creating something beautiful.

And after a few minutes she had relaxed enough and felt good enough to start talking.  She shyly told me about her pets:  a shiba inu dog and a Persian cat.  She was starting to feel fulfilled.  And so was I, seeing her transform from the phobic young woman she was a few weeks ago.

When  I'd finished my time with them--and most of them saved pieces to work on next week--I had an errand to do, in Windsor, Connecticut.  The G.P.S.  brought me on a route that took me through the heart of the North End and places I'd never seen, some of them stately and impressive old homes bordering Hartford's Keney Park.

When I reached my destination, and told the people there that I had come through the North End to get there, one of them said, "I hope your doors were locked."

And for the first time I felt a twinge on injustice on behalf of the people with whom I had just been working.

And a twinge of guilt, too.  Because a few months ago I would have had the same attitude.