Monday, January 31, 2011

Argo, Grom, AQ and Ferrara: Coffee at Columbus Circle

I have a friend who says she can remember every meal she ever ate. She is a foodie, but I was still struck by that. I usually can't even remember what I did yesterday. Now it turns out that I can remember almost every cup of tea or coffee I ever drank. And thinking about certain hot drinks can set off a whole chain of associations in my head, causing entire parts of my life to come into sharp focus. I think Marcel Proust wrote some sort of book about that effect.

Cup of the Day #65
by Gwyneth Leech
White-out and India ink on 
ochre printed paper coffee cup

Today, however, I am remembering a quest for a hot drink rather than the actual brew. I met up with my teen daughter on 57th Street and 7th Avenue one afternoon. She had a window between her orthodontist appointment and her piano lesson and she wanted a snack. We have been several times to Europan, the closest to were we stood, but it is awful.
"I know where we will go," I said, heading us towards Columbus Circle and the southwest corner of Central Park.

On the East side of Broadway just short of 58th Street, we were surprised to see that a whole string of brand new cafés had opened up! And what strange names : Argo, AQ Kafé, and Grom.
We went into each in turn, but Megan wasn't satisfied. Grom was all about ice cream, AQ was table service and very formal. Argo was promising, but their selection of teas was so large - fruit, floral, herbal and spice -  we didn't know where to start.

"Really, I know where we will go", I said again, and we pushed on right to the corner of the park.
This is actually just about my favorite place in the city - a kiosk outpost of Ferrara Café. The home bakery is on Mulberry and Mott in SoHo. The cannolli and strawberry tarts are delicious, the espresso excellent. They are open all year and you can comfortably sit in the sun at little tables under the trees on all but the coldest days.

Having told her all this, I was shocked to see in front of us the shuttered green kiosk. My heart missed a beat - could  Ferrara Café be out of business? A small hand-written note relieved my worst fears;
"Closed today for the celebration of Saint Michele Feast Day". Never heard of that holiday, but phew!

"Mom, I am hungry and thirsty and now I don't have much time. Where are we going to go?"
I began casting around: Wholefoods café under the Time Warner Center across the street? How about a nice whole wheat and seed cookie from the organic café at Equinox gym next door? A kebab from Mohammed food cart by the traffic light?

"No, no, no."

"Ok, I give up. Where do you want to go?"

"Starbucks," she said, pointing to one across Broadway on the corner of 60th Street.

And so, dear reader, we went.

Ferrara Cafeé in Central Park
Open every day!
Phtoto by John Arun, January 2011

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Just About the Worst Cup of Tea

I have been going out to Barbara Ellmann's studio in Long Island City 
a lot over the last few weeks. She is facilitating the long-term preservation of my cup drawings through an encaustic process. 

Cup of the Day #64
Boiling Cup by Gwyneth Leech
 India ink on brown and white paper cups

I stand by her giant west facing windows all day, dipping cups in a molten solution of beeswax and Damar varnish. Then I slowly fuse the surface of each cup with a heat gun. Slow is not my usual way, so I have been learning to be more methodical and careful as I go, gently heating the wax surface rather than overheating and causing the wax to run right off the cup.

Barbara has a lot of tables in her studio because she teaches workshops for R & F, the encaustic paint manufacturer, on a regular basis. It has been wonderful to have the space to spread out the cups, and to walk around and see them in different lights. I began to stack them into tall structures the other day, tantilizingly totemic towers of ornamentation. This opens a whole window on scuplture!

I will be installing the massed cup exhibition in just over a month, so I am pressing on with treating the nearly 300 cups I have so far. A few more days should see the job accomplished.

Dipping Cups in Barbara Ellmann's studio
Long Island City
January 2011

The trip out to Barbara's studio on the N train is full of interest. Emerging above ground just before Queensborough Plaza, the train ascends along curving tracks that wind through the neighborhood, providing close views of water towers and the graffitied upper reaches of warehouses. From the elevated platfrom at 39th Ave-Beebe I descend a long narrow flight of stairs, and walk a few blocks to her studio. On 39th Avenue a new vista spreads before me across Long Island City to Manhattan, dominated by the red and white striped stacks of a power plant they call Big Alice.

There are a few small delis and bodegas along the way. I have tried each one but have found neither good coffee nor good tea. It is Litpon tea bag territory, served everywhere in the same thin blue and yellow patterned paper cup. The Lipton is bearable if two teabags are used, but getting exactly what I want in a deli-land of little English has proved difficult. Yesterday, already inside the studio, I took my first sip to discover that instead of two tea bags, milk, no sugar it was one tea bag, no milk and two sugars! Sugar in my tea was a bitter disappointment. But Barbara's electric tea kettle and her stash of Chai tea bags saved the day.

Sunset through water towers,
from the studio building
Long Island City
January 2011

Monday, January 24, 2011

Tea Leaves and Letters

I am drinking tea at home this morning while penning a letter on paper to my 86 year old uncle who does not do computers. For as long as I can remember, my favorite implement for both writing and drawing has been a cartridge pen with a calligraphy nib. The letters loop happily from the free flowing india ink, and with the tweak of a curve, the line has a pleasant way of turning into drawing.

Cup of the Day #63
Blue Ribbon Cup by Gwyneth Leech
India ink on white cup

I studied calligraphy at school and the gesture of the curves we practiced over and over remains a habitual and surprisingly productive start to many of my cup drawings. Perhaps it is a response to the  curve of the cup surface itself, or just the pleasure of "a line going for a walk", as Paul Klee put it. Needless to say, my note-taking in meetings turns quickly to drawing. It helps me concentrate at the time, but the pages are often not much good for review.

My mother had a book of fanciful alphabets in her studio library - ornate calligraphic meanders that I tried to copy when I was kid. When my parents moved from their large house in Philadelphia, I got the book. I wonder if I can figure out where I put it in the storage unit we rent?

The storage unit is in a six story windowless building on 43rd Street, a four block walk from the apartment. It is stacked with a near cascade of portfolios, rolled canvases, framed artwork, shipping boxes, storage boxes of letters, photographs and videos, Christmas ornaments, camping equipment, inherited whatnots and linens, and boxes of books. Storage Wars would find slim pickings here, but it all means something to me - I think.

The other day, a man wheeled a trolley past while I had the door open. He glanced in and said, "Ah, moving madness."
It is true. All this stuff represents several moves to smaller apartments, as well as that major downsize when my parents sold the large family house in Philadelphia. I am terrified to dive in there, but I want that book!

Meanwhile, the letter to uncle is already a page of drawings. I have to start over.
First, I will go put the kettle on again and make another cup of tea.

Cup of the Day #63B
Calligraphy Cup by Gwyneth Leech
India ink on white and green printed cup

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Upcycled, Curated by Barbara Lubliner, and the Cup Lid Dilemma

Cup of the Day #62
Three Cups with Lids by Gwyneth Leech
White-out pen, sumi ink and India ink on printed paper cups

I just came back from another look at "Upcycled" a sculpture exhibition curated by Barbara Lubliner, at the Educational Alliance, 197 East Broadway, on through thursday January 20th. Back in December, I wrote about the opening which was packed, and I wanted a closer look. The ground floor Rubenstien gallery is open 9am -9pm so if you are reading this before or on the 20th, there is still time to enjoy a very attractive and thought-provoking exhibition. Attractive because the material used by the artists is brightly-colored, toy-like and expertly manipulated. Thought-provoking because that material is scavenged post-consumer plastic trash, or plastic pollution as the current awareness-raising movement wants us to understand it.

Being an Upcyler myself, I respond positively to the aestheics of the artwork by Olivia Kaufman-Rovira, Bernard KlevickasBarbara Lubliner Shari Mendelson, Janet Nolan, Ilene Sunshine, and Tyrome Tripoli.  At the same time, consider that even if every artist in the United States decided to turn our post-consumer waste into art, we would probably not make a dent in the avalanche of this stuff being thrown away on a daily basis. Rather we should look for a future when the waste reduction movement has rendered these plastics rare and precious, deserving of their jewel-like colors.

by Bernard Klevickas
Plastic and rivets

In the meantime, I especially admired the construction of Bernard Klevickas' small wall artworks, of Barbara Lubliner's plastic bottle geometries and of Janet Nolan's Cancan installation. I know what they had to contend with. Back in the 1980s, while living in Scotland, I had a sea-borne plastic-detritus period (as opposed to my current paper cup period where the only plastic I tussle with is in the lids). I took a truck out to a small town on the West coast one day and within a few hours had filled it full with a huge quantity of the simlarly colorful yet repulsive plastic material. In my case, it had all been washed up by the waves: fishing nets, boxes, floats, water bottles, tool parts, domestic objects and broken pieces of unidentifiable things.

by Barbara Lubliner
Plastic bottles 36 x 26 x 26 inches

Back in the studio, I discovered that these plastics were beastly to work with. Nothing would stick to the surfaces and no glue would hold them together. Eventually, I used a hot glue gun, essentially melting pieces together, until I learned that melting plastic creates toxic fumes. No, I will not endanger my health for the sake of an artworkl! So, in the end I bound, piled and tangled all this stuff together into frenzied installations studded with video monitors that I exhibited until I could bear the sight and smell of the plastic no longer. Terrifying to think how much more plastic there is in the ecosphere now than there was those twenty-some years ago!

Back to the present, the neat riveting in Bernard's work, the wire-reinforced plastic straw connectors of Janet's wall piece, and the hinges cut from plastic bottle bottoms holding Barbara's shapes together are all ingenious, glue-free and completely satisfying solutions.

Leaving at 4 o'clock I stopped by Café Petisco across the street from the Alliance for a cuppa. There, I thoroughly enjoyed tea in a contraption which, with care, can be safely reused for thousands of years: an earthernware mug. And if you sit in, no plastic lid is required.

by Janet Nolan
Plastic bottle caps, lids and straws
12 x 32 feet

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

On Cars and Manticores but Nary a Cup of Tea

Like most New Yorkers, we don't have a car, relying instead on foot and public transportation. However, I rented one at the weekend to take 23 of my oil paintings down to Philadelphia to hang a solo exhibition of the Perfect Family portrait series.  

  Cup of the Day #61
Harpies and Griffins Cup by Gwyneth Leech
India ink on "Ecotainer" paper coffee cup

Back in the city, left with an extra day on the rental, I puzzled over how to make use of it. Driving here is an adventure. Honestly, I am just a pedestrian behind the wheel, but I immediately forget that pedestrians have the right of way at lights and am consumed with restlessness as they drift slowly across the intersections in all directions. Double parked vehicles, gaping potholes and the occasional orange and white striped tube belching steam turn the streets into slalom courses.

All right then, let's go somewhere in the city which is out of the city. And a short run up the Henry Hudson Parkway brought me, my seven year old daughter and her friend to the Cloisters, that stunning museum of Medieval art and architecture at the tip of Manhattan, perched high up in Fort Tyron Park.

Narbonne Arch, 12th Century France
The Cloisters Museum, NYC

I promised the girls a castle filled with dragons and unicorns, and they were not disappointed. The coat check lady told them the real creatures were in hibernation and only show up once a year at the October Renaissance Fair. However, she said, if we looked hard we would find murals, tapestries, door hinges, cups and carvings in the shape of all manner of mythological creatures. Thus a satisfactory afternoon was passed, and we found not only the promised dragons and unicorns, but griffins and harpies, a manticore and an amphisbaena, carved pug dogs on the tombs of knights, brilliantly sunlit stained glass, giant icicles and a terrace to dance on against the backdrop of a snow-filled garden, the Hudson River glistening below.  

Was there anything at all to complain of? Only the lack of a cup of tea. I have never been at the Cloisters in the right season for the "seasonal tea-room", and it is a long hike indeed across Fort Tyron Park to any sustenance. We went without, but after a long meander Southward in the car along Riverside Drive, where we enjoyed the sunset through the bare branches, we brewed a big pot of tea when we got home. 

And no, I never told them that the Cloisters is a museum.

Drawing on steamy glass 
at the Cloisters,  January 2011

Friday, January 14, 2011

Buongiorno Espresso: Sunrise in Midtown

Wednesday was meant to be a Snow Day. The private schools got one, but in the end the public schools stayed open. Thus, the lines of children trudged along the slushy sidewalks, rather despondent dark figures against still-crisp snow banks as the garbage trucks fitted with plows made their way up 10th Avenue. 

Cup of the Day #60
Blizzard in Midtown by Gwyneth Leech
Gel pen and brush pen on Blue and white printed cup, 2011

It was rather lovely early on, each tree branch and building-ledge trimmed in white. I had been looking forward to a day sledding in Central Park. But you can't do that if you don't have a kid with you, can you?

I decided that the Not-a-Snow-Day was actually a reprieve and I headed early to the painting studio, so early that it was still time for breakfast. My husband and I stopped in Buongiorno Espresso Bar, a sweet little Italian coffee bar opened just a year ago. The owner, Liliana, is Greek but the house coffee beans are imported directly from a roaster in Italy and the crisp croissants are baked on the premises. We settled onto stools at the window counter, our very authentic Italian china cups bright in the morning sun streaming in from the West.

Greeting the morning sun in the West!?
Buongiorno Espresso Bar,  
New York City,  January 2011

Wait a minute - how is the sun streaming in from the West at 8:30AM?
Only because it is bouncing with laser-like intensity from a new glass tower over on 10th Avenue. Weird, but we could almost feel heat in it!

9:00 am saw me in the studio embarking on what turned into a five-hour session, painting high contrast abstractions from the snow-edged panorama outside my window.

Going home I detoured along 48th Street past the Clinton Community Garden. On the other side of the tall black fence the beds and shrubberies were shrouded in white, clean and still. At any time of the year it gives me a thrill to turn my key in the gate and walk in, stepping out of the city into a parallel place. I tried to catch that feeling in a video short I did a few years ago, shot during another January snowfall. The music of Martha Sullivan caught just the right mood and it was a pleasure to find it and watch it again today.

Snow Garden, video by Gwyneth Leech
Music by Martha Sullivan
4 minutes and 12 seconds, 2008

Monday, January 10, 2011

Lifting a Cup to the Tavern on the Green

Living in New York City one must not repine over the closing of a restaurant or shop, the changing of a landmark, the rising of a new building. This place is a work in progress, always in flux, never finished. Still, it was weird to find myself outside the Tavern on the Green in a snowy Central Park the other day and to realize that the Tavern is gone. Literally. I was standing on a snow-covered cement slab that was recently the floor of one of the many glasshouses which had been attached to the original 19th Century structure, now restored by the Parks Department.

Cup of the Day #59
by Gwyneth Leech
Whiteout pen  and 
white gel pen on grey cup

I confess that I never ate at the Tavern on the Green, a famed and latterly rather infamous (for labour relations) destination dining spot in the city. But it was always a favorite rest stop during days with my children in the nearby playgrounds. The Ladies Room was a confection of pink and white tile. An attendant held onto the soap bottle and dispensed scooshes onto small hands, then handed over a crisp white napkin. Her tip jar stood ostentatiously by the sink and we dared not leave without dropping in a dollar.

Before returning to the mundane world outside the Tavern doors, I would wander the labyrinthine mirrored hallways with the girls, admiring Tiffany glass ceiling lamps, framed paintings and stunning stained glass panels of entwined peacocks. We peeked into the frothy glass-house dining rooms filled with wedding and Barmitzah parties and tourists enjoying lunch beneath crystal chandeliers and frescoed ceilings. Outside the windows, fairy lights twinkled in the trees and the topiary all year long.

Tavern on the Green interior 
with frescoes by Richard Taddei, 1984

The non-glass walls of several of these dining rooms were covered with trompe l'oeil frescoes. My downstairs neighbor, Richard Taddei painted amazing murals on the these walls in the 1980s. Good thing he took gorgeous photos which can be seen by clicking here. The whole place was a rather rather frenzied fantasy of luxury and high living.

Back to the reality of this frozen January day, what remains is the undeniably-lovely, faux-Gothic, curved building which was a sheepfold in the park over a hundred years ago. Part of the interior is now transformed into an unlovely and generic visitors center and several units are empty, awaiting a summer food court. In the meantime, specialty food trucks are parked here. Today it is a Van Leeuwen espresso and ice-cream truck, usually found on 5th Avenue. The price of the single-source, pour-over Ethiopian specialty cup of coffee was certainly worthy of the old Tavern, but the ambience was just a bit different.

Snowman, Central Park, NYC
Photo by Gwyneth Leech

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Spanish Coffee for the Three Kings

I picked up a Spanish coffee this morning from Café Lali on 10th and 45th, one of my favorite stops. As I waited for my espresso and hot milk (no sugar, please) I noticed the bag of Bustelo coffee beans under the counter - a bracing blast of Cuba.

Cup of the day #58
Three Kings Cup by Gwyneth Leech
Colored ink on cream colored paper cup 
with black and red printing

The weather is freezing and the cup kept my hands warm as I made my way home along 47th Street through a canyon of black garbage bags surmounted by discarded Christmas trees. What with the holidays and the December 26th blizzard, there has been no trash pickup on our street for over ten days. When are they going to haul all this off to a landfill in Pennsylvania? Truly shocking to see how fast our post-consumer waste accumulates! Adrian Kondratowicz has the right idea - use decorative garbage bags to turn these mountians into art installations.

Now, as for the Christmas trees... OK, when does Christmas end? For the New Yorker who goes out of town for Christmas, that tree can be out on the sidewalk as early as Christmas Eve (very sad sight). For many, it is December 26th, and for even more people January 1st sees the dried-out, tinsle-tangled relic on the curb.

But New York City Parks Department and I are in the know. Christmas last 12 days, and they don't pick up for wood chipping until after the twelfth day, which is January 6th and the Feast of the Three Kings. 

In my mind Three Kings is a Spanish holiday since I had never heard of it before a post-Christmas trip to Spain with my family when I was 6. We were spending a year in Switzerland, my dad a university professor on sabbatical leave, and had travelled by train to Madrid.

January 6th found us in Toledo. I remember a cobbled street outside massive city walls. In the distance we spied the three kings - literally: brilliant colored robes, shining turbans, jewels and gifts! I dashed ahead of my family, running across the cobbles. It ended as many of my early memories seem to - with me tripping and falling on my face. By the time I was up-righted and the tears wiped away, the kings could be seen getting into a car and driving off. The disappointment is still keen.

Adrian Kondratowicz's biodegradable trash bags 
crowning a street corner

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

How Not to Catch Mice + Choosing a Tea

Recently they have been audibly nibbling behind my kitchen wall. Over the holidays, I saw the Balanchcine Nutcracker (Pennsylvania Ballet production) and I agree with Clara - they are not in the least bit cute and cuddly. Would that a Nutcracker would kill the Mouse King at my house and get rid of them all!

Cup of the Day #57
by Gwyneth Leech
Colored ink and white-out 
on white paper cup with printed band

We proceed with traps and bait, but I have come to the opinion that putting out bait must surely just attract more of them, creating a net flow of the creatures into the apartment. This view was vindicated yesterday when, with the kids back in school, I embarked on a frenzy of New Year cleaning. Getting down on hands and knees in the kitchen, I looked under the cabinets. There in the baseboard - A mouse hole! Several!! And strewn under all the cabinets were the remains of multiple blocks of blue seed-laced mouse bait I put out months ago and forgot. What a scene - they have feasted on the stuff for weeks and lived, no, thrived. New York City mice are not ordinary rodents - but evolved bionic mice that eat poison bait for fun.

So ensued a day of cleaning with masks and gloves, vacuum and mop until no trace of blue or seeds remained, and the mouse-holes were stuffed with steel wool.

Cup of the Day #57, verso
by Gwyneth Leech
Colored ink and white-out 
on white paper cup with printed band

Midafternoon, with the winter light shining almost level into the kitchen, I sat down thirsty and craving a cup of tea. I am out of Scottish Blend and can't get it around 9th Avenue anymore. I have tried replacing it with Taylor's of Harrogate, Ahmad afternoon tea, Barry's and Lyon's Blend. They are all strong and full-bodied, but not the same. I must go down to Myers of Keswick on Hudson Street in the West Village to restock.

I don't know what it is that makes Scottish Blend my favorite brew - aroma, body, the size of the leaves? I once visited a tea plantation in Kerala, South India. After strolling across the bush-covered hills we visited the curing plant and learned there that the choicest and most flavorful tea leaves are reserved for export to Britain, the strongest blackest tea is sent to Russia, and the broken leaves and floor sweepings go to the USA. Ha! I knew it!

Today I opt for Lyon's blend. I Brew a cup, add some milk and sit at the kitchen table eating Bretton Butter biscuits (a Christmas present) without dropping so much as a crumb on the floor.

Facing off with the mice
The Nutcracker
Pennsylvania Ballet, December 2010

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Greetings: May 2011 Be a Rich Brew

Brought in the New Year at home on West 47th Street in Midtown drinking orange spice tea. From blocks away at midnight came the primal roar of the crowd in Times Square as the ball dropped. The glass walls of skyscrapers were illuminated with reflected fireworks and a great whoop and cheering came from tenement rooftops all around. 

 Cup of the Day #56
by Gwyneth Leech
Colored ink on white paper coffee cup 

The merriment subsided and for hours people made their way home through the
slush-clogged streets of a city still digging out from under a snow storm. Glad to be home and warm.

Here's to a creative and prosperous 2011 filled with hot drinks and new stories!