Friday, September 28, 2012

When Artists Cook


Harvest season always fills me with ________________________ .  How would you fill in that blank?
. . .

Hi everyone, Bethann Merkle here, I’ve been mulling this over for the past month or so, as the garden peaks, the farmers markets flood with produce, and I write and rewrite the list of things to preserve for the winter.  At about the same time, my husband has been conducting the annual check/re-arrangement in the deep freeze and regular freezers.  

[We recently stood peering into the deep freeze, delighted at the discovery of some special bits that had escaped cooking earlier in the year.  And let me tell you, special bits aren’t always very glamorous or gourmet - we were particularly pleased to find a couple of hidden packages of venison burger, the only burger left in the house.]

This incident is a good indicator of a personal truism - I tend to get a little ahead of myself when it comes to harvesting and preserving.  By that I mean, there’s no limit for me.  It’s never enough.  As long as there is a nook or cranny in the house that is reasonably stable in temperature, and not exposed to much light, I am interested in filling it with food that will keep through, or at least into, the winter.
  What this means, at least this year, is that there are piles and piles of garlic drying in the basement - on shelves where we usually store our camping gear and my sewing machine.  It also means that we stop at roadside stands, on the rare luxurious trip outside the city, and purchase produce in bulk. Capital B - B.U.L.K!  Think ~80 pounds of peaches, so ripe they dripped down your chin when you looked at them.  Picture 120+ pounds of tomatoes, and about 30 pounds of peppers, and at least that much in u-picked raspberries. 
Everything gets frozen, dehydrated, or canned.  Freezing is my personal favorite because it is quick and simple, and we deal with a lot of the peppers, berries and tomatoes that way. However, our freezers are busting at the seams, and we aren’t halfway through the harvest yet.  As in most years, we have again resorted to canning - a cheap but time-consuming way to get a great facial.  

Already, we have rows upon rows of jars filled with brightly colored spicy pickled peppers (oh, boy, do I love making pickles!), crimson tomato sauce, and sunshiney peaches.  Our shelves are slightly, almost imperceptibly bowed under the weight of jars - a happy problem to have.  As my honey never ceases to remind me, we probably don’t need much more jam to make it through this winter, unless we start giving it away to every person we know by their first name.  But that never stopped a girl, at least in my case.  We made some of those peaches into golden ambrosia (a.k.a., jam), along with almost all the raspberries.  And last night, we experimented with something brand new - homegrown, hand-picked, homemade grape jam!  

Our backyard is lined in vines, but last year (our first year in this apartment), they produced a piddly handful of grapes.  This year, though, they’re making up for it in bushels!  We picked about 20 pounds last night, stuffed ourselves full of them, and then tested this recipe (from Local Kitchen). Let’s just say Welch’s ain’t got nuthin’ on homemade jam!  Wowza!

Having such a hands-on relationship with my food is one of my absolute favorite things about the mayhem that is harvest season.  The kitchen is aswarm with fruit flies, which one cheeky friend describes as “indicators of abundance,” and the occasional stow-away earwig always shows up in the least expected corner.  But, even when I’m busy picking snails out of the beet greens, or scrubbing tomato splatters off of...well, everywhere, this is still about as real as it gets.

When I can plant the seeds, water them, weed around them, and then pull them out of the dirt with other organisms still clinging to them, I know those plants intimately.  When I rinse them, chop and simmer them, pour them through a funnel, and plunge the jars containing them into steamy water, I am taking as direct a role in my local (and internal) ecosystem as I can.  Mind you, the BULK aspects of preservation don’t come out of our garden (yet), but they do come from farmers we know a little better every year.  They grown in the similar soil to what we cultivate, flourishing under the same weather systems.

For the next year, friends and family will gather ‘round tables to honor the life which is supporting ours.  Some of them ask for canning tips, or even a session with us so they can learn how.  When I can catch my breath, I scribble a little something into my sketchbooks to capture it all. Because even shelves loaded to groaning and freezers stuffed to the brim will be emptied as we celebrate the bounty, the flavor, and the labor of another harvest. 


Thanks for checking in xx 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Words To Live By

"We can live a peaceful life
 when we can indulge in pleasures 
without becoming a slave to any of them." 


It seems to be a very berry week.  I don't know why I find myself sketching fruit so much lately, but that seems to be where the creative stream takes me.  Maybe it's because it's fall, and in Iowa that means harvest.  Gardens around us a simply dripping in fruit, despite the drought, and just looking at them makes my mouth water.  Blueberries are a favorite in our house right now.

I find autumn in Iowa to be one of the most peaceful experiences I've ever had.  Not that autumn in Australia is chaotic, it's delightful, but it's different.  Here, the colors, the cool breezes, and the fading light all make for such a romantic ambiance.   It get's cold quickly so we start to pull out snuggly sweaters and scarves and the air is full of that smoky leaf smell.

Of course, like most artists, I have a scarf obsession. I kind of collect them, and yes, I wear them too.  I have well over 50 scarves...far too many for one person, but each one is unique and beautiful and I take great care of them.  I wear a different one everyday in autumn, regardless of where I am going.

Another autumn indulgence is warm pumpkin bread with lashings of butter and a sprinkle of cinnamon and sugar.  My waistline doesn't like this one but sometimes my need for home comforts wins.  Pumpkin soup is also a favorite.  Not a popular dish in the US, but a home comfort necessity I bought with me from Australia.  In fact tonight I am making pumpkin soup, fresh corn on the cob, and crusty bread for dinner.

I seem to get a burst of energy in autumn and my creative juices go mad.  I sleep better at night and everything just feels more peaceful and content. But you won't hear an ode to winter from me...oh no!  I'm not a winter girl, not at all and I'll spend the entire winter season finding ways to avoid going out the font door. Denial can be a wonderful friend sometimes.

But for now, I feel like autumn is a gift, and the beautiful autumn days are to be treasured.

Thanks for checking in. xx

(This sketchbook page is done in watercolor, pen & ink)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Wild Raspberries

My 6yo daughter has become great friends with the kids who live across the street from us.  Their 'edible' garden is the stuff of glossy magazines and she's spent a wonderful summer playing in it with them.

She came home one afternoon with a belly full of wild raspberries, declaring that raspberries are the new strawberries.  Meaning her new favorite.

You see, she has been an avid consumer of fresh strawberries all her life.  Straight out of the box, no additives...just washed and eaten. Every day I put them in her lunch box, and they are the first things to be consumed.

So, taking to heart her new berry 'evolution', I promptly purchased a punnet of fresh raspberries and started including them in her lunch box, and on her plate at meal time. I even went as far as to make her a super delicious "Wild Raspberry Smoothie".

Wild Raspberry Smoothie

1 cup milk
2 scoops ice-cream
1/2 cup fresh or frozen raspberries
1-2 teaspoons honey or sugar to taste

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and whiz until smooth and thick.  
Pour into a long glass and drink immediately!!  
Try adding a splash of chocolate syrup for a twist!

Well, more fool me...I was very quickly put straight by this 6yo professor..."Raspberries are only good when you eat them straight off the bush Mom!!" So if I was any kind of half descent mother I'd fill the back yard with wild raspberry bushes...I guess I'm a bad mother!!

But the next best thing was to grab our sketchbooks and watercolor pencils and go mad!

Enjoy your day and thank for checking in. xx

Friday, September 21, 2012

Art of Silks


I'm currently up to my eyeballs in Silk.  Well, not the fabric kind of silk, rather the shimmering, glistening, paint kind of silk...Luminarte's "Silks Acrylic Glaze" to be exact.  I'm engaged in an invigorating, liberating, uplifting project for Leslie Ohnstad, the inventor of  Silks Acrylic Glaze and Twinkling H2O's.

I won't say much about the details of the project at this stage, but I will say that Leslie and her vision, talent, and obsession with color have completely transformed my life. This project has also bought me into collaboration with another artist for whom I have enormous respect, and working in collaboration can push you in ways you never imagined...I LOVE IT!!!  

As many of you know, I am kind of addicted to Luminarte products...and no, I am not on their payroll.  However, through my absolute love of Twinkling H2O's and Silks Acrylic Glaze, I have been able to find a vehicle for my honest and soulful art. I wrote my classes "Mastering Twinks", and "A Taste of Silks" as a love letter to Luminarte, wanting to share the shimmering, glistening wonder of these products with as many people as I could. 

Throughout my learning journey, the very hardest part is accepting who I am as an artist, and that what I create is worthwhile.  It's difficult not to constantly compare myself and my work to others around me, especially when there are so many amazingly, talented individuals out there.  But I have very quickly learned that that is a road to nowhere. I am me, nobody else is me, and I am nobody but me!

I am my own worst critic and often go through a crisis of confidence. In fact, I've been very much in one of those lately. Hating everything I do, ready to pack it all in and get a real job.  But it's been thanks to a few of my very special art friends who are honest, encouraging, and hugely supportive that I keep going.

One thing has remained steady and true in my artistic life, and that is my love of color and shimmer. So thanks to Leslie Ohnstad's vision, I have found a voice for my art, and thanks to her incredible team of paint-makers, art around the world has been made all the more beautiful by her products.

The works I am showing you here are part of this project I am creating for Leslie.  These works are all done on fabric using Silks Acrylic Glaze exclusively.  You cannot see the shimmer so clearly, the fabric swatches are huge and they are difficult to photograph, but they are truly breathtaking and my studio looks like it's been consumed by a rainbow of sparkle. I wish you could see it!  Once I have completed this project, I plan to continue on with this kind of work as part of my repertoire, and I will share some of this process with you in the weeks to come.

Luminarte run both of my classes on their website, and from time to time, Leslie sends me samples of her new release colors to play with.  In fact, I received a delicious box of shimmering acrylic joy today.  She has just released 25 amazing new colors in the hugely popular Silks Acrylic Glaze range, including my very favorite color of all time "Pretty Peridot".  To celebrate, Luminarte are running a special price on the entire collection for a very short time.  Click here if you'd like more info.

Thanks for checking in. xx