Friday, December 24, 2010

A Very Choral Christmas and a Hot Cup of Chai

By all accounts, my paternal grandmother Margaret and her sister Mary had wonderful singing voices. The daughters of Scottish and Welsh farming folk in Bloomington Indiana, they were much in demand singing duets at public and private events and as choral singers in the Baptist church. In turn, Dad was in the church choir in Ambler, Pennsylvania as a boy. I never heard a thing about that, but the junior choir medals still lie sedately in his velvet-lined display box next to the WWII medals and the Phi Beta Kappa key.

Cup of the Day #55
Grande Christmas Cup by Gwyneth Leech, 2010
Colored ink and white-out pen on red printed cup

When my sister and I were respectively 9 and 11, annoyed with our Saturday morning marathons of TV cartoon-watching and resulting bad humor, dad signed us up for junior choir at an Episcopal church in our neighborhood in Philadelphia. I have been in church choirs ever since. It is an interesting view from the choir stalls: making the music, being part of the show, keeping one's counsel on matters ecclesiastical. Grandma used to say, "if there is trouble in the church, it started in the choir". Hmm.

I now sing in the professional choir at Saint Bart's Church on Park Avenue and 50th Street here in New York City, as does my husband, a baritone. We met in an Edinburgh University club in my Scottish art school days  - yes, it was a choir - and we have been singing together since.

So what attracts a painter to choral singing? It is social, my job is clearly defined and finite, I am just a part in a big machine, I don't have to make the decisions, and when the job is done there is no artifact to store (except of course, my paper coffee cup) What is not to love? It is the perfect day job for a visual artist.

A while back I was talking to one of the singers and he told me he was taking classes at the Art Students League.
"Good for you," I said.
"Yeah," he replied. "This singing business is too hard. I decided to become a painter. It will be easier to make money".
Wow. Well good luck with that!

If anybody needs me over the next three days I will be at Saint Bart's, and at Saint Bart's, and at Saint Bart's singing Christmas services. I hate to say it, but the marathon will be fueled by Starbucks because there is no place else close enough to dash to between services or that is open on Christmas Day in the Morning. I will play it safe and eschew the coffee in favor of grande cups of Tazo chai tea which always put me in a festive mood. And if I didn't tackle at least some of those red Starbucks holiday cups I wouldn't be living in the world, now would I?

Choral Procession
Saint Bart's Church, NYC
December 2010

Click here to see the schedule of Christmas services at Saint Bart's and join us for candlelight, gorgeous choral music (if I do say so myself) and probably some incense thrown in. Grandma would hate the smells and bells but she would be pleased that I stuck with the family business.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Family Baking and Afternoon Tea

I think a lot about Great Aunt Martha at this time of year.
Diminutive, round, mild-mannered, white-haired, partial to sweets, beloved by all neighborhood children, an amazing baker, she lived for years with her sister - my Grandmother Katherine.
The week before Christmas always brought Aunt Martha to our house with a large number of tin cookie cutters and baking gear. Sand tarts and gingerbread dough were mixed, chilled, rolled out, cut, studded with raisins, sprinkled with sugar and baked by the score.

Cup of the Day #54
Gingerbread Cup by Gwyneth Leech, 2010
Colored ink, Sumi ink and white-out pen 
on brown printed paper cup

My sister surprised me last year with a framed painting of the cookie baking scene done by my mother in the 1960s. It perfectly captures the warm kitchen, Aunt Martha and me working diligently at the table, snow falling past the window beyond. I still remember the pots of tea we drank when the cookies were done.

In our minds, Aunt Martha was put on earth just for us children and she was always a dependable source of exceptional treats. If she had a life that didn't involve spoiling first her nieces and nephews, then her great-nieces and great-nephews we didn't know about it.

But there is always a story. Three sisters, Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. Their father (my great-grandfather) was a Scottish inventor, something to do with mechanical looms and rug-weaving mills. Fortune smiles. There is a big house, servants, fine furniture, monogrammed china, linens, silverware and lovely jewelry. Elizabeth, the eldest becomes a teacher. Katherine, the youngest, goes to art school in Philadelphia in the 1920s and marries Mike Gallagher, fellow art student.
And Martha, the middle daughter, runs off with the chauffeur.

She what? I couldn't believe my grown-up ears when this story was finally told to me. Sweet little Aunt Martha - a woman with a past?!
He promised to make her a chef in a fine restaurant.
They went to Florida.
But there was no restaurant.
And there was no marriage - the chauffer was married already.
An uncle went down to Florida and found her working as a short order cook and brought her home.

The family money and the large house didn't survive the 1930's. Aunt Martha and her sister Elizabeth went into domestic service and worked for the Underwood (typewriter) family as cook and housekeeper in Brooklyn Heights, then moved with them to Lincoln Nebraska where they stayed until Elizabeth died.
Neither of them ever married.

Aunt Martha's final years were spent with my grandmother in Philadelphia, where she made us very happy. My sister and I inherited some of the jewelry - necklaces of amethyst and rose quartz, crystal and jet - along with more fine linen, damask and chinaware than we will ever use.

And just this week my sister presented me with a box containing all the cookie cutters.

Aunt Martha and Gwyneth Baking Cookies
By Louise Leech, 1965
Pen, ink and watercolor wash
10" x 14"

Monday, December 20, 2010

On Hoarding and Upcycling Coffee Cups

I have a hoard. The coffee cups, hundreds of them, with and without drawings, are spilling all over my studio. I also stack them behind a folding screen at home and they topple out. Coffee lids and sleeves find their way everywhere.

 Cups of the Day #54
Marsh Lines cup drawings by Gwyneth Leech, 2010
Colored ink and oil paint on white and green paper coffee cups

After almost a year of saving every cup I buy, I can't throw them away. I was carrying one in my hand on 9th Avenue the other day. It was a brownish one from a deli, with an ugly cream-colored pattern of coffee cups and on it. I hate to get that cup. The color does not please me and it is hard to transform into anything interesting. I threw it in a trash can and walked away. A few steps later, I turned. It sat on top of the pile, looking forlorn and abandoned. I went back and retrieved it. According to Randy Frost and Gail Steketee, authors of the book Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Stuff, once I start anthropomorphizing my trash I may be in trouble.

On the upside, they suggest that hoarders may “inherit an intense perceptual sensitivity to visual details,” and speculate about “a special form of creativity and an appreciation for the aesthetics of everyday things.” Well that sure does describe me. Perhaps that is why I was so able to correctly identify art from trash in a recent competition on Joanne Mattera's art blog.

Trash is finding its way into lots of art these days. My artist friend Barbara Lubliner calls it Upcycling and she has just curated a highly entertaining and colorful exhibition by that name at the Educational  Alliance in New York City. I went to the opening with my younger daughter who was overwhelmed with the desire to play with all the sculptures. I will go see Upcycled again on my own before it closes on January 20th and have been enjoying the digital catalogue.

 Shari Mendelson, Untitled
5 vessels made from plastic post consumer waste. 
An element that is attractive to me, and to the artists in Upcycled is the easy-to-come-by components. Large sculptures and installations can be built to unimaginable sizes from an  endless supply of 
post-consumer waste. I look forward to exhibiting my own hoard in March of 2011 in the Garment District. And just to keep me on task, an artist friend sent me this image today of the Mona Lisa, made from over 3,000 cups filled with coffee and varying amounts of milk. Now that's a lot of throw-away Joe!

3,604 cups of coffee which were made into a giant Mona Lisa 
painting in Sydney, Australia for a coffee festival. The 3,604 cups of coffee were each 
filled with different amounts of milk to create the different tones and shades.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Eat/Art, Stumptown and the Porcelain of Daniel Levy

I was headed West on 29th Street from Broadway to shoot some photos of the many and varied food-related artworks in the exhibition Eat/Art at Atlantic Gallery, where I am showing three cup drawings.

Cup of the Day #53
Trio of Gingerbread Cups by Gwyneth Leech
Colored ink, sumi ink and white-out pen 
on paper coffee cups
in Eat/Art

I was hankering after a coffee but discovered that the blocks I was treading are a culinary desert, being instead the Midtown heart of bling; store after store is an Aladdin's cave of costume jewellery, watches, trinkets and ornamented baseball caps. On each door stern notices are taped:"Wholesale Only, "Tax ID Required", "No Retail". What is it about such admonitions that make me want to buy something?

Just past my gallery destination, a sandwich board annoucing a studio sale at 155 West 29th caught my eye, and I detoured up in a worn freight elevator to Daniel Levy's amazing porcelain-ware production studio on the third floor. He has been working in the neighborhood for many years and had a wealth of exquisite handmade objects for sale. I left with a black and white cup and the beginning of an idea about porcelain coffee cups in my head.

In Eat/Art at Atlantic Gallery, just a few doors away, the shopping opportunities are plentiful. All the artworks are 12" or less, very reasonably priced and can be taken home at purchase. In addition, 10% of each art sale during the show goes to Just Food, "a local nonprofit organization that connects farms to inner-city residents and helps them grow their own food and otherwise increase their access to fresh ingredients."

 Coffee filter artwork by Linda Stillman
Medium: used coffee filter, 
acrylic on panel with plastic cap
in Eat/Art

I still had coffee on my mind, so naturally my eye was drawn to an illusionistic wall mounted half cup by Chris Zeller, a jaunty coffee filter artwork by Linda Stillman, a charming green demi-tasse in oils by Whitney Brooks Abbot, and a light-hearted tea bag mobile by Christina Sun. To go with, there are artworks using toast and Froot Loops, paintings of muffins and pancakes, and several delightful cakes made from ceramics. You can see some of the pieces in a New York Times article here or on the gallery website here.
Better yet, head on down to see the show yourself. It is up through December 23rd, at 135 West 29th Street, Suite 601.

As I was leaving, I  asked Pamela Talese, organizer of group shows at the gallery how she survives working in such a caffeine wasteland. "Oh, you just turned the wrong way when you got off the train. Stumptown at 29th, is just a half block the other side of Broadway. It will more than meet your needs."
Indeed, at Stumptown the beautifully lit display cases of pastry, the juanty fedoras the staff wear and the impeccable fern pattern in my latte foam were works of art in their own right.
And the coffee, roasted in Red Hook, was excellent too.

Kokkino by Zekio Dawson
Mixed media
in Eat/Art

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Windows of Bergdorf's and Coffee at the Plaza

It is here with a vengeance. The night of Thanksgiving, even before December began, I saw my first flat-bed truck laden with cut Christmas trees rolling into the city. This Sunday afternoon, I gave into the moment and strolled up 5th Avenue with my seven year old daughter.

Cup of the Day #52
By Gwyneth Leech
Colored ink on white paper coffee cup

There were gold boxes in Cartier's, opening and shutting to reveal sapphires and pear-shaped diamonds against red velvet. At Tiffany's, it was a frosty tale of the Blue Bird, small snow-covered storybook scenes strewn with more diamond rings. At Van Cleef and Arpels the windows were the sets of charming paper cut-out theaters, rich with undersea treasures - corals and pearls and a sailing ship laden with jewels. 

But the show stopper was, as always, the windows of Bergdorf and Goodman at 5th and 58th. I can't even begin to describe the sheer lavishness of their Christmans windows, always a cornucopia of objet d'art and wild ideas, a spendidly dressed mannequin somewhere in the midst of each display. This year, clockwork creatures abounded and the tour de force was a window filled with icy treasures, including a huge octopus studded with mother-of pearl and crystals.

The windows are the work of a team of artists and artisans led by the brilliant David Hoey- and if your wallet is deep a coffee table book of years of these windows, published by Assouline, can be had for just $550. "If only real life were as swell as the windows of Bergdorf's," quips Bette Midler in the introduction.

Van Cleef and Arpels
Ruby ring in a clockwork oyster shell 
57th Street, NYC, December 2010

Sated with visual splendors, almost at Central Park, we entered the Plaza Hotel on a whim. It is still partly a hotel despite its recent reconfiguration as luxury condominiums and looks resplendent following renovation. We briefly considered tea in the Palm Court but opted instead to descend to the lower level and have a paper cup caffeine break by an incongruously located Koi pond. There is a food market which serves Kobricks coffee - quite excellent.

As a final bonus, we found Santa Claus in a grotto down there, seated on a satin sofa and available for an audience. Why he had a Plaza Hotel monogram on his fur-trimmed hat was hard to explain, but he was jovial and otherwise quite convincing.
"What do you want for Christmas, young lady?"
"Presents!" The prompt reply.
"In particular?"
"New pajamas. My pajamas are old and filled with holes."
Phew, Santa didn't so much as glance at me. Definitely time to leave 5th Avenue and take the subway home!

Bergdorf and Goodman holiday window
5th Avenue, NYC
December 2010

Friday, December 10, 2010

In Search of SoHo: What's Up on Wooster

I was on my way to Pearl River Mart, a large Chinese emporium on Broadway a few blocks up from Canal, in search of paper and bamboo blinds to replace ones in my apartment ruined by a leaky window frame.

Cup of the day #52
by Gwyneth Leech, 2010
Colored ink on toned cup

Exiting the subway train on Canal I decided, as one does, that I needed a tube of Viridian Green oil paint, so I detoured through the China-town throngs to SoHo Art Supply on Wooster. Despite enormous temptation (I love art supplies) I bought only the one tube, then emerged a bit nostalgically into what was the heart of the NYC '80s art scene to discover that, well, it is still bustling down there with art and artists.

Across the street the joint was jumping at the Levi's Photo Workshop. This huge pop-up studio is completely free and one can only gawk at the digital and analog equipment available for walk-in use until December 18th: cameras, lighting kits, Apple computers, large Kodak printers and more. Go and play before it closes!

Also on Wooster were an Art Production Fund pop-up gallery, the Drawing Center , and the new Team Gallery, under construction and set to open in May 2011. After checking out Artists Space a block away, I began feeling a touch weak at the knees and I was on the look-out for coffee.
Ah, Le Pain Quotidien, just around the corner on Grand Street. I bought a small latte and a minute lemon tart topped with a raspberry and sat outside on a bench for a minute in the sun. I opened the white paper bag and carefully removed the lemon tart. It gleamed like a jewel. I couldn't just eat  it - I had to photograph it first with my cell phone.

Oh no, the woman at the other end of the bench is watching me.
"You see," I explained, "I blog about art and coffee."
"Really?" She sounded interested. "Only visual artists?"
"All kinds - costume designers, dancers, musicians."
"In that case, here is a card for my most recent performance, Right this Minute."
I registered her name, Leslie Satin.
And on the list of performers, Ted Johnson.
Wait, I know him! He was a principal dancer in Imprints on the Landscape, a piece about coal-mining and my artist grandfather choreographed by my Aunt Martha Wittman for the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.
In fact, my daughter Megan, then 10, danced duets with him in the Washington DC premiere in 2007.
Do you know Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and Martha Wittman?
"Yes and yes!" she replied, "and I have known Ted for years."

From small pastry to small world moment in the turn of a head!

Coffee break on Grand Street
SoHo, NYC, December 2010

And yes, I found the blinds at Pearl River on my way home.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Near Misses: A True Musician's Tale

Cup of the day #50
Connections Cup, 2010
by Gwyneth Leech
India ink on white paper cup

Chris Smart was late for choir rehearsal on Saturday morning, arriving breathless and a little pale, clutching his travel coffee mug tightly in his hand. At the break we quizzed him; What on earth happened?

"Well, I am playing a concert tonight Uptown," he said, "and I was carrying a lot of stuff. I changed trains at Astoria Boulevard on the way here. One stop later I made a horrible discovery - I left my oboe and english horn on the subway platform!! That's $12,000 worth of instruments. And the english horn is borrowed."

"The subway door closed just as I realized. I had to wait another stop, then run six blocks back up Broadway with my bag over my shoulder and my tux over my arm, pushing people out of the way.
I hammered up the steps to the platform and ... there they both were, untouched, on the bench!

We gave a collective gasp of relief; New York City and no one one took the instruments.
"Yeah," said Juliana. "I have lost my wallet twice in the city and had it mailed back to me both times."
Come to think of it, I mailed back a wallet myself once, though I have never gotten any of my own lost wallets returned (three, but that was pickpockets).

"The dark brown instrument cases looked just like the wood of the bench. They kind of blended in, so I guess that's why. Though as I came up the platform, I could see people were looking at them, but from a distance."

Of course, we exclaimed, "if you see something say something!" Everyone is afraid of the unattended bag in the subway. Good thing you got there before the bomb squad. How would you play your concert with a pile of instrument shards?! Chris gave a rueful laugh and after stashing his instruments under his chair, headed off to Starbucks to refill his travel mug.