Post #3286: Learning to Paint

I haven’t been writing much in the last month because I have been totally absorbed in a course I am taking through Maiwa which teaches how to turn natural (plant and insect-based) dye matter into paint. The amount of course work per week has taken up much of my free time, and I am totally immersed in colour and techniques at the moment. I have also come up against my total inability to make any kind of representational art (but more on that in a minute).

Painting fabric with natural dyes requires a number of manipulations, both to the dyestuff and to the fabric itself. Cellulose fabrics such as cotton and linen must be mordanted before dyeing, in a process where both alum and a tannin are infused into the cloth. This creates a chemical bond between the dye matter and the mordant (it’s also why you can’t just use any old plant to dye fabric, only some plants make the chemical reaction required).

When turning towards painting and printing with natural dyes, there are several techniques we are learning to deploy: applying mordant to only select areas of the cloth and then dyeing, mordanting the whole cloth and then painting with a thickened dye, and applying a mordanted/thickened dye paste to select areas of the cloth. Each of these produces a different effect, as does the application of iron or soda ash to the dyes to shift their colour. When the fabric is finished and cleaned (through steaming and rinsing), it is not “painted on” but dyed, and retains the full flexibility of cloth which makes it highly usable in sewn applications.

Mixing and making colour samples is a place of true joy for me. Even more than the natural dyeing learning I undertook last summer, this has become a bit obsessive since the course started in mid-September. However, once I have mixed the paints, what to do with them becomes a bit of a question for me since I am not at all capable of creating representational painting – or drawing (to make a stencil) for that matter. My work is as though a five year old has set upon a box of paints – lots of squiggles and rough strokes, ending in spatter painting to get the damned thing done. I’m not too worried about it at the moment, the purpose of the learning is to get the colour-creation techniques down, not to create fine art. But I would like to learn more about the painting side of things as a way of advancing my surface design capacity for bag and garment-making in particular.

Even so, I’ve learned quite a lot by just messing about thus far including:

  • the quality of the brush really does make a difference (I will never use craft store brushes again)
  • making a palette of finished/dried colours at the outset is essential since the colours change significantly in the finishing process
  • when stenciling, less paint is better
  • blocks for printing can be made out of anything that holds paint
  • masking tape helps make straight lines – and a lot of patterns can be made with straight lines

I have also been watching the occasional painting tutorial online and find those helpful in the sense of understanding how a set of lines makes a representational image. I don’t have a mind that breaks objects into shapes in order to understand the construction of image – so it helps to see those who do at work. I am very taken with Chinese ink painting, and I feel like these materials lend themselves to that type of brush stroke and limited palette. I haven’t actually tried to replicate however, so at this point I’m just guessing.

As a younger person I really confined myself to things I knew I could do, so I wouldn’t look foolish or feel “stupid” in the process…. but eventually I learned that without making a mess, there really is no progress. Over the last couple of decades I have gotten a lot better at trying things I am no good at or don’t have experience with and that has lead me to sewing, knitting, weaving, and now here to dyeing and dye-painting on cloth. Who knows if I will take it further or turn it into something else – but it’s been fun so far and I’m not at all afraid to show my work even though it’s pretty rudimentary at this point!

Post #3285: Return

I am fully back in my schedule after one year of being out of it, and at least partly working away from home. No matter anything else, it feels good to be in this routine again – the early morning work start and mid-afternoon finish, the being at home to get things done in and around the work schedule. I have spent the last two days utterly inside my own life for the first time in what feels like months. Early morning meditation, lifting weights, household chores, and ocean swims (followed by the sauna) surround my working day and I am fully returned to September energy after the heat wave of last week well and truly broke.

I still need to get down to writing again, but at the very least I am breathing, along with the wind that has been sweeping our island for the last couple of days. I am determined, even inside the windstorm to get into the ocean every day (testing to see how late in the season I can go) – and yesterday I went down to the beach and wobbled my way into the crashing waves. I had no intention of swimming in such rough water but I went in up to my chest and bobbed around a bit, soaking in the frenzy of the swells and pulls. Our beach is surrounded by a reef, which cut the waves somewhat, but walls of water still came down from above me as I stood in the energy of it all (the calmer water in the photo above is from last week).

An update from the summer: my residency project/bid on the bigger property came to naught in early August, though I still feel very much like it’s what I want to be doing with my life going forward. I don’t know what to do with that feeling other than wait it out and see what happens next.

But for this fall I am on a path of return to a quieter place, to the meditation cushion, and from a long year away from the routine that works best for me. I am canning, making herbal concoctions, and cleaning the house. I am planning fall meals and house concerts. I am home again, in the place where I co-create love and security with my partner and community. I feel very lucky that I could go out and try some different things on the work front, but now I am tired from that effort and look forward to cooler days spent in nourishment of the self.

Post #3284: Getting through August

I feel stupid whenever I tell people that from mid-to-late August is my worst time of year. Summer is supposed to be happy time and all that. But for whatever reason in the seasonal cycle August brings on depression and anxiety. I get stomachaches and arthritis – physical manifestations of the mental health spiral – and I spend much of the last two weeks after the full moon in a fog of exhaustion. I do not know why this is so, but it has been this way for most of my life and no matter what I do (holidays, time off, self-care) it comes on just the same. I am hostage to this part of my cycle and I do not like it one bit.

Earlier this week I turned to my Tarot deck in search of three reminders three reminders to help carry me through the next two weeks. The cards I pulled are above and in short serve as an excellent narrative to dig into over the next couple of weeks. In essence – I have everything I need to get through this time (The World) and I carry an abundance of inner strength, though I should beware of carrying unnecessary burdens (10 of Wands). Following my own intuitive path instead of bowing down to hierarchies and traditions is the way through right now, which includes freeing myself of creative constraints (reversed Hierophant).

When I was younger, I believed (at least partly) in magic and the power of tarot as a method of divination. Though having long ago abandoned both those beliefs and the tarot cards I learned to read in my teens, I have started using tarot again in the past year as a tool for intuitive work and self-care. Given the impenetrability of my internal emotional space at times, not to mention my rigidity of self-imposed rules, I find the tarot helpful in illuminating my subconscious motives and desires as I feel my way through the self in all its drives and depressions.

One thing I have learned in my low periods is to listen to my body and take it easy, rather than trying to force myself to maintain the same levels of energy. Instead of pushing to adhere to my regular schedule of creative and work output, August has become a time where I take my foot off the gas, often breaking from my workout schedule and allowing myself to play a bit more in the studio. I make time to check-in with myself around what might be missing, or what schedules and routines I can amend in the fall to better align with other shifts in my life. This year, these last weeks of August coincide with the transition back to my old job (the one I took leave from a year ago), as well as a trip to a remote location in the Broughton Archipelago where I plan to do some writing and work on a talk I’ll give at my Zendo in mid-September. I look forward to some days spent reading and writing before coming home to my old work team.

An arena in which I’m making some space this fall is in my creative practice. I’ve signed up for an online workshop via Maiwa titled Printing and Painting with Natural Dyes and am looking forward to returning to some textile experimentation since I’ve spent almost no time in the studio since May. I also want to fit in a bit of collage and art journaling to complement some writing I am doing related to creative practice and spirituality. And finally, I plan to return to my newsletter as a way of turning out regular written content. Now that I’m not travelling half the week for work, and I’m out of the super-consuming managerial position I took on last fall – I plan to reorient my life to my creative and spiritual dimensions as much as possible.

By using self-care tools and looking ahead to the next season, I am getting through this month where everything just feels a bit harder than normal. Somewhere on Instagram last week I saw a meme that said “Nothing in nature blooms all year. Be patient with yourself.” I’m working with that in the knowledge that September will soon be here and I’ll be ready for the change in my mental health season when it comes.

Post #3283: Seasonal Food Storage

Earlier this week I wrote a rather long-winded email to a friend on the subject of seasonal food storage, which I’ve adapted some of here. It’s canning season after all, the time of year when many of us think about filling our larder.

I really think about food storage on an annual basis, with some key times in the cycle. August and September are canning months, I order meat in quantity from the local farm in October around the same time that we are butchering a deer or two from hunting season, and dry goods have a quarterly cycle depending on what’s been used. This past weekend I did my annual “inventory” of the canned goods situation, and so I’ve got my list of everything that needs putting up before this time of fresh (and less expensive) produce is over.

I have a few general principles that guide my pantry stock-up:

1) Eat and replenish your supply on the regular. Canned items and dry goods may have a long shelf life, but they aren’t particularly *good* if they sit too long in jars and bins. While it’s true that you can eat a ten-year-old quart of tomatoes to no ill effect, they will be pretty unappealing (and don’t get me started on grey peaches – no one wants to eat those). Similarly, grains like to be rotated through as they can grow stale over years even in tightly sealed buckets.

2) Only put by food you and your family will actually eat. This second principle flows from the first. I used to put up a lot of canned fruit, but then after several years realized that it never got eaten (hence, grey peaches). Ergo, I stopped wasting my time and pantry space on canned fruit (except applesauce).

3) Always be canning/dehydrating: We tend to think about canning as a summer activity, but I look for produce deals at the grocery year-round and do small batches of canning or dehydrating as it makes sense. I do small batches of stock whenever we have leftover bones or enough veggie trimmings collected in the freezer, January is marmalade season, red cabbage is always available at the grocery for pickling. This approach spreads the work out over time, and allows you to take advantage of deals that come up over the year.

Now – onto the specifics of my pantry – which I hope helps in you are thinking about your own food storage and security needs and desires:

Dry & Canned Goods

Throughout the year I purchase dry goods in bulk through a distributor on Gabriola Island. I used to purchase them through a co-op in East Vancouver when I lived there. If you don’t have a bulk distribution service where you live, I understand that many grocery stores will do special orders, and your local grain mill likely also has 10kg and larger bags of oats/wheat/barley for sale. Point being, there are sources for bulk goods but sometimes you have to hunt around for them.

I purchase my dry goods in bulk for two reasons 1) It’s much cheaper than buying smaller quanties and 2) I like to have a six-month food supply on hand at any given time. Purchasing dry goods in bulk requires a place to store them, and sufficient (rodent and insect proof) containers to store them in. I use the opaque-white 5-gallon food safe buckets with Gamma Seal lids which allow for easy access to contents. (A 10 kg bag of something fits into a 5-gallon bucket.)

I’m lucky to have a pantry which accommodates twelve of these buckets in which I keep:

  • White flour
  • Multigrain flour
  • Rye kernels
  • Whole white wheat kernels
  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • White rice
  • Whole-grain barley
  • Chickpeas
  • Black beans
  • Navy beans
  • White sugar

Why these particular dry goods? These are all ingredients I cook/bake with regularly; some have been specifically selected for longevity (whole grains store indefinitely), and some for ease of nutrient availability (oats and barley can be soaked in water to become edible if there is a fuel/electricity shortage for cooking). Foods that are both a protein and carb source (legumes and quinoa) offer full-spectrum nutrition in the event of food shortages.

In addition to the large quantity dry goods, I purchase smaller (1-2 pound) quantities of nuts and seeds, dried fruits such as apricots and dates, pastas and other grains which I store in sealed glass jars. Nuts, seeds and dried fruits all have a shelf life of six months or less, so you only want to buy what you can use in that time period. They key to all of this storage is containers (plastic or glass) that have gaskets which keep out insects and pantry moths. Check jars and buckets every couple of months to ensure you haven’t brought any critters in with your grains as that is often where the problem starts.

Seasonal Preserving

Seasonal canning begins for me in May when I make my first batch of rhubarb ketchup. Then throughout the season I attempt to get canning quantities of veggies and tomatoes to fill the larder with the following staple recipes:

(Pressure canning is for low-acid foods such as legumes and low-sugar veggies, tomato sauce with additional ingredients such as onions and garlic, meats and fish. Everything else on that list is done in a steam-canner which uses the same processing times as a boiling water canner.)

In addition to the canning, I do a lot of dehydrating in a productive year as well. Tomato skins from the canning process become a powdered add-in ingredient akin to using tomato paste in a recipe. Apples get turned into rings, and plums halved to become year-round snacks. In the winter we do citrus slices in the dehydrator for easy cocktail and sparkling water add-ins.

And there is always at least one fermentation project – usually sauerkraut which gets stored in the fridge after fermenting for a few weeks in a crock. It can also be canned, but my preference is to keep the active good bacteria alive through cool storage.

Meals in Jars

In the summer and throughout the year, I pressure can a lot of “meals in jars”. Everything from soups to chicken pot pie base and curried chickpeas. Meals in jars are handy when you don’t feel like cooking or when the power goes out (which it does here frequently and sometimes for several days) – they also make legumes readily available for weeknight dinners. What follows is a list of safe pressure canning recipes that I like to have on hand:

When choosing pressure canning recipes, it is important to follow instructions from a safe canning website. As home food preservation has become more popular, there are an increasing number of recipe books and youtube channels promoting unsafe canning practices. Food safety is extremely important when canning meat and low-acid veggies. Read more about botulism here if you don’t believe me.

Both Bernardin Home Canning and Healthy Canning are reliable online resources for canning tips and recipes. The USDA also offers a complete guide to canning in PDF form and recipes found on US Extension Offices websites are also tested and safe. Stay away from any Facebook canning groups unless they promote stringent food safety – not only are they full of dangerous advice, the individuals promoting that advice are often less than pleasant when challenged on it.

A few more tips on storage and supplies

Storage basics: Only purchase what you can safely store and keep free of rodents and insects. Do not bulk-order food you don’t have a solid storage plan for or you will find it quickly over-run with critters. Similarly, do not store canned goods in unheated sheds or crawl spaces; freeze/thaw cycles lead to burst cans, broken jars, and bad rodent infestations (leading to hazmat level clean-outs). Food should be stored in easy-to access containers that are in range of your kitchen; cycling through your stored supplies is key to keeping them renewed over the long term.

Supplies: Use only tested canning supplies from reputable companies. Having the appropriate equipment really does make a difference! Some items, like pressure canners, are best purchased new (unless you know enough about them to restore and test old ones). A reputable Canadian company selling goods that support survival and food security without too much super-fringey messaging attached is the Good 2 Go Co. They carry food safe storage buckets, reusable canning lids (Tattler lids), silica packets, water filtration systems and pretty much everything else you can think of. From time to time they have decent markdown sales as well – which is a good time to stock up on the pricier stuff.

Long-term food planning and storage isn’t just a summertime activity by a long shot – it’s something I build into my annual cycle. But it wasn’t always this way! I started out wanting to make jam for Christmas presents when I was 22, and my practices have evolved from that point over the intervening (27) years. Your own food storage and security practices will rely on your own needs, experience, and access to space and resources. While I try to maintain six months of whole foods supply for myself (and a few friends), someone else might just put a few flats of canned tuna and lentil soups under the bed and call it a day.

During the pandemic, we had our first real taste of supply-chain issues which were compounded by the hoarding behaviours of a few. Being food secure and putting stores away over time really cuts down on the impulse to overshop when the supply-system is stressed, and leaves food on the shelves for those who really need it (and can’t do storage for any number of reasons). But ultimately I don’t kid myself about our level of survivability. The truth is, if food systems are knocked out for more than six months and we haven’t come together on a local level to figure out how to provide for ourselves collectively – then I’m not sure that’s a world worth surviving in. Mostly the preserving and storing of food fits a different kind of practical-aesthetic in my life: the ability to feed lots of people on a moment’s notice; the security of never running out of necessary items; the ability to control the amount of sugar, salt and preservatives in my food; the lessened environmental footprint in terms of packaging and water use. A wave of self-reliant feeling washes over me when I put another batch of jars on the shelf, my world feels a little less frail when I know I can always feed someone at my door.

Post #3282: You can’t always get what you want

So far it’s been a summer of not getting what I want. Or what I think I want. First of all – the sellers turned away from our offer on the lodge we want to buy for an artist residency project and then, the job with my union I’ve been on contract to for the last three months was offered to someone else past the summer (an internal candidate) which means I’ll be returning to my old job in September. ⁠

On the plus side, August will be a much more chill month than it would have been if either of these thing came to pass – and I’m taking advantage of that with a couple of unscheduled weekends and then a couple of shows/parties and a mini-vacation on the horizon. I do have to work most of the month, but given that my job isn’t continuing past the 23rd, I don’t have to work all that hard.

I am a bit sad the lodge deal hasn’t come together yet, but I won’t count that possibility as dead until the end of October because I think it’s entirely plausible that we could still end up with that or another property to base a residency and arts center out of. But if not, then we’ll move onto projects on our home that we need (a new roof) and want (a house length greenhouse on the south side) – continuing to make this our home to love and host people in.

I feel a lot of possibility right now, coming out of the weird few months since having Covid and leaving the “really good job” that was supposed to define my career back in April. There has been a lot of shift and bump in my life of late, but rather than derailing me, it’s helped me investigate my core drivers with a lot more attention to the details.

Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly confused about the difference between “meaningful life” and “importance in career”. As though the former relies on the latter. Consciously I know that’s not so, but I’ve been nagged by the feeling that because my work doesn’t speak directly to my core purpose, I’ve been doing something wrong. The rise of the gig economy over the course of my adult life hasn’t helped. The mantra “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is tricky. Even as I recognize it as a craven message of a system advantaged by people moving around trying to find the job they “love” while never staying long enough to demand a pension plan or unionize their workplace, it also makes me feel deeply insecure about the fact I don’t “love” my work.

But the fact is, there is tons of work that I do and love – it’s just not the stuff I get paid to do! And that’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately – how I can continue to dial into my core needs and drivers to make a meaningful life within the context of the workaday – at least for the next five and a half years until I get to retire and pursue my interests fulltime. The pursuit of Hummingbird Lodge and the union gig this summer have revealed to me that at my root I am inspired by projects that convene community, and am endlessly curious about the human condition (and problem-solving it). This last year has also shown me that all-consuming paid work is not for me (and ultimately is bad for my health), because I have so much of the rest of life I want to explore.

I feel really excited to have remembered these things about myself because it means that I’m ready for the next opportunity – whether it be another location for the artist residency, or a collaborative fibre arts project with some friends on the island. I don’t really know where things are leading at the moment, but I have a lot more tools to evaluate my life direction when the next fork in the path appears. That feels like more self-knowledge than I’ve had in a long time, and for the first time in forever I don’t feel dictated to by what I “should” do or driven by another’s definition of success. So you know, we don’t always get what we want but if we try sometimes……

We get what we need.

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