Thursday, April 30, 2009

Back to Basics

Here's a photo from the studio of our unbelievable watercolors teacher, Linda Hanson. Linda and I have been talking shop more this year, since I've been spending more time with my own watercolors. We discuss process, our studios, and our works in process. I feel really lucky to have forged a strong bond with such a talented artist and teacher. An encore of one of her most beloved classes -- Introduction to Watercolor Painting -- is coming up on May 15, I'm hoping that I will be able to sit in on it. Even as an experienced painter, I know that Linda will have new techniques and perspectives to show me. She always does. If you want to be there, too, you can register through the Castle in the Air website.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


When the lucky students at Castle in the Air finish their project tonight, they won't believe their eyes. That's because our newest teacher, Denise Juliani, is helping them combine a simple set of craft materials into truly extraordinary kaleidoscopes. Made from simple pieces of acrylic and mirrors, filled with tiny treasures, and decorated on the outside with colorful paper, glitter, and ribbons, the kaleidoscopes are a feast for the eyes both as objects and experiences.

Denise shared with us a kaleidoscope she'd already made, and now we can share it with you!

Summer Classes Are Here!

Our summer class mailer is at the printers and will be in the mail soon, but in the meantime, you can get the first look at our offerings at the Castle in the Air website. Click on the "Classes" link to page through our calendar and register online for your seat in our Studio for the Imagination.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Spring is in the air!

John's nearly finished making all of his giant crepe-paper flowers. But don't take my word for it!

Monday, April 27, 2009

From the home studio...

I've been making time to spend in my studio at home lately. It's really my own world, and I have a great time getting lost in music and all of the little details of my projects. Recently I've been spending time learning the joys of creating with paper clay. Here is a picture of one of my new friends who has come about from that process.

Her face and hands are made of paper clay attached to an artist's armature, and I made her clothes from painted fabric. She's part of a larger project that I hope to tell (and show) you more about in the near future. Rosanna Pereyra (doll-maker extraordinaire and creator of the weblog Fractured Fairytales) and I met during this year's One World - One Heart festivities, and we've been corresponding as I've worked on my dolls. She's been a real mentor, sending encouraging replies to my emails and pictures, and gently pointing out where I can make improvements (like in my sense of proportions). Thank you, Rosanna!

Friday, April 24, 2009

"There was an old man..."

There was an old person of Ickley,

Who could not abide to ride quickly;
He rode to Karnak on
a tortoise's back,
That moony old person of Ickley.

Well, it's official: I've switched camps. For the longest time if anyone asked me to name the greatest artist of all time, I had to say William Blake. His paintings were literally out of this world, and no poet but Blake could really capture the essence of the microcosm and the macrocosm -- "To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a flower..." -- or aesthetics -- "Exuberance is beauty." You just can't top that. Or so I thought.

That was until last night, when I discovered the early illustration work of Edward Lear. Yes, that Edward Lear, the poet best known for "The Owl and the Pussy-cat." Before all his nonsense limericks came about, though, Lear was a celebrated painter. His first publication, at 20, was Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots, a collection of 12 amazing prints of the colorful birds. This got the attention of a patron who gave Lear work painting the animals at a private menagerie in Derby. His second book was Tortoises, Terrapins, and Turtles, published by J.E. Gray, Zoologist for the British Museum. Of course, that book alone would have converted me, but there's even more to love about Lear. He went on to produce 11 books of animals and landscapes during his life, but failing eyesight led him to abandon painting for his now better-known work of nonsense rhymes.

There was an old man of th' Abruzzi,
So blind that he couldn't his foot see;
When they said, "That's your toe," He replied, "Is it so?"

That doubtful old man of th' Abruzzi.

You see, Blake flared and flamed so much in life that that is how he will always be remembered. But with Edward Lear, it's a different story. He did his most incredible illustration work right off the bat, and then when he couldn't do that, he went on to make a career out of limericks and simple little drawings.

Still, it's hard to write him off as capitalizing on "kid's stuff." The Lear limericks are usually about somebody who stands out from the crowd. Maybe their nose is too long, or they sit in a boat on dry land and insist that they're at sea. The more I learn about Lear's life, the more touching the poems become, because many of them seem so personal. Lear's poems celebrate what made him different and, by extension, the eccentric in all of us.

There was an old person in gray,
Whose feelings were tinged with dismay;
She purchased two parrots, and fed them with carrots,
Which pleased that old person in gray.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Great Crepe Paper Coincidence

In a true twist of serendipity, two wonderful crepe-paper flower projects bloomed today at Castle in the Air. John McRae was working on a special order for a customer who wanted some children's birthday party decorations. He was in the upstairs studio putting the finishing touches on the first pieces -- a pair of giant crepe-paper flowers -- when Diva and Daniel shouted from downstairs for us to come see what came in the mail. We did, and saw that the store had been mentioned in a two-page craft story in the current issue of Martha Stewart Weddings. Not only that, but the project gave instructions for using our crepe paper to transform paper parasols into tremendous blossoms for the flower girls! I guess spring is bursting out all over!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Sketches at the Gates of Slumber

Not long ago I was talking with my dear friend Laurey about the frustration I feel from not being able to fit in making art with all the other things going on in my life. She told me about how she sketches every night just before bed. She's been doing it since finishing art school years ago, and says that she loves having the habit. It's sometimes the only art she's able to fit into her life as a busy mother, but it's something every day, which is so important.

I started the practice myself, and I find it to be really satisfying. Each night I take just enough time to make something before drifting off into dreamland. It's productive, too -- in fact, all the drawings for my next book, Commonplace Mouse, started as bedtime sketches. Thank you, Laurey!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Testimonial

This weekend Castle in the Air is welcoming back master calligrapher Bill Kemp, who flies in from Albuquerque a few times a year to teach classes in the studio. Bill will be teaching copperplate script this time, and when he returns the weekend of July into August he'll teach Spencerian script and flourishes.

Spencerian script was developed by the American calligrapher Platt Rogers Spencer in 1840 as a writing hand appropriate for business and social correspondence. It was the standard into the 20th century, when it was edged out by the Palmer Method (which most of us remember from school days) and the rise of the typewriter.

As we were preparing the summer class mailer (which is on press as I write this), we came across a fun old "testimonial" from a Spencerian student back in the script's heyday. You can click on the picture to get a closer look. Mr. Morgan's had quite good success with just five weeks of practice!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Here it comes!

"Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot; others transform a yellow spot into the sun."
-- Pablo Picasso

The sun is shining hot and bright in Berkeley today! It's a bona-fide heat wave, with temperatures around the Bay Area beating records set 25 years ago. And if you can't beat the heat, join it! We thought we'd get on the sun's good side by showing it some of the suns we have at Castle in the Air. Shine on!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Queen for a Day!

Our glittering hoard of Dresden delights keeps growing at Castle in the Air. This week we're putting out dozens of new styles of Dresden trim, including several new paper crowns. Now anyone can be king or queen for a day! The one pictured here comes with a convenient elastic band so that you can go about all your regal activities with ease -- it's not very majestic to fuss with one's crown!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"One for my master, one for my dame..."

I spent the morning in the loft studio at Castle in the Air, assembling the first bags of mixed colors of wool from our shipment. It's so easy to think of all the fun needle-felting projects I want to make when I see the different colors in combination. My girls are coming to the store tomorrow, and will help me put together more bags. Many hands make light work!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Three bags full!

Today the stagecoach driver dropped off box after box of wool wool wool at Castle in the Air. We're now the proud owners of 60 kilograms of fine dyed wool from Austria. The family who runs this small farm has been trying to find new uses (and new markets) for their shearings, including selling it to the floral industry for use as fill around bouquets. We've become fleecy florists ourselves, as we used part of last year's shipment of wool to create needle-felted flowers and vines for a fancy centerpiece arrangement.

In a happy coincidence, our friend Lana (whose name happens to be Spanish for "wool") emailed this morning with Merriam-Webster's "word of the day," which is actually a phrase: dyed-in-the-wool:

dyed-in-the-wool \dyde-in-thuh-WOOL\ adjective: thoroughgoing, uncompromising

Apparently, early yarn-makers helped their yarn retain its color longer by dying the wool before spinning it. This practice was referenced in 16th-century England by people who compared the long-lasting color with the way that children would hold certain convictions their entire lives if they were taught them early enough. "Dyed-in-the-wool" was used as a derogatory descriptive for Democrats in 19th-century America, but now it's used to describe people not likely to change their opinions or ways.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Happy Dyngus Day!

Does anyone here celebrate Dyngus Day? I just learned about this festival today, and fortunately not the hard way! It's traditional in Polish communities for every boy in the town to observe Dyngus Day by sneaking into the room of a girl he likes (with help from the unsuspecting girl's mother) and waking her by pouring buckets of water on her. The times, they are a-changin', though, and progressive Polish girls are said to be getting the jump (and the dump!) on boys these days. Even married folks have to watch out, as teenagers perch on balconies and douse passers-by.

April showers, indeed!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Does the Easter Bunny lay Easter eggs?

The Easter Bunny is packing up his basket and will be dropping by countless houses this weekend. But where on earth did he get all those eggs?

Some people say that the rabbit, famous for its fertility, has been associated with another reproductive symbol, the egg, since time immemorial. With the rise of Christianity, both became representatives of Easter's themes of rebirth and renewal.

The explanation I like better, though, has to do with a simple mix-up. Hares in Scotland and other parts of Europe spend much of the daylight hours in "forms," little dug-outs they make that provide partial cover from the gaze of predators. The hare's form is very similar to the local plover's nest. According to legend, some springtime hikers startled a hare, who ran away from what looked like its form, but was in fact a plover's nest filled with eggs. The budding naturalists put two and two together and came up with...the Easter Bunny!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

In a World of Their Own

On Tuesday, eight ingenious and industrious students created their own miniature worlds in John McRae's "Wardian 'Glazed Glass' Garden" class. Using transparent sheets of mica, Dresden trim, turned wood, papier-mache boxes, and tiny flora and fauna, they constructed perfect little landscapes under ornate domes.

John says he loved the creativity that each student brought to her or his garden. One finished hers with a mica base so that she could view her scene from any angle. Another student brought a string of lilliputian lights and her landscape looked inhabited by fireflies or will o' the wisps. Pure magic!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Colorful World of Mariaelisa Leboroni

When it rains in the spring in Berkeley, like it has been for the past few days, all the trees and streets and houses take on darker, richer, glossier colors. The blossoms brighten up, everything looks so fresh, and it feels great to be alive.

I get that same wonderful feeling every time I look at Mariaelisa Leboroni's artwork. We sell her xilographia (handmade woodblock-print) journals, photo albums,
address books, and other delights at Castle in the Air. They've just debuted on our Online Shoppe, too, in the new Xilocart section. Take a peek and maybe you'll feel that same rainy day elation!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Notes of an Abject Reptile Lover

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for reptiles, which is how as a teenager I found myself with a job feeding all the snakes, lizards, and turtles at a science center here in Berkeley. More recently, I've been reading Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile, by Verlyn Klinkenborg. The East Bay Vivarium is only one block away from Castle in the Air, and when I started haunting their aisles of pythons, frogs, and sweetest little newborn turtles, I felt a bad case of tortoise fever coming on.

I found myself going back again and again to see these ancient-looking animals, with their ponderous movements and wise faces. I especially liked the leopard tortoise babies, so small one would fit in the palm of my hand. At night I would dream about them! As
much as I tried to shake it, the tortoise fever grew and before long I knew it was just a matter of time before I took one of them home.

About a week ago I gave in and admitted to myself (and anyone who would listen) that I was going to adopt one of the adorable leopard tortoises. The same day, picture after picture of giant tortoises started appearin
g on my desk at Castle in the Air. One came on the cover of a new book by Julie Morstad (ABC, pictured above). Mr. Marsh was reading another book (Alice's Adventures in Jurisprudencia, by Peter Sloss, below) that had a similar illustration. Talk about mentalist manifestations!

Before I knew it, I was the proud new parent of one of the leopards. Casanova lives in a specially designed and heated house in our kitchen. I feed him every morning and give him his bath and he is delightful to watch. There's something about how he wakes up and opens one eye, then takes twenty minutes to open his second eye, that reminds me there are always new perspectives about how to meet
the day. I'm sure you'll be hearing more about him in the days to come!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Just a coincidence?

A few weeks ago a very strange and briefly terrifying thing happened to me, and I've been thinking about it ever since. I was driving my girls to a friend's house, and as we passed a Taco Bell fast food restaurant I slipped into a guilty reverie about how much I love some of their food. Of course, Taco Bell embodies everything I don't like about business, food, and health all wrapped up in a delicious, perfect-sized seven-layer burrito, so we didn't stop there for lunch.

Minutes later, after I'd parked the car outside our friend's house and was unbuckling the girls from their seats, I heard a scream from behind me and then felt something wet on my leg. I froze, literally and figuratively, as liquid seeped through my clothes and the chilling thought that I must have just been shot flashed across my mind. Then, looking down, I saw a clue as to what really happened. A Taco Bell soft drink cup, its lid and straw laying nearby and the last few chunks of ice splaying out of it, rested at my feet. Someone had hit me with a drink!

As I finished helping the girls out of the car, I realized that perhaps my thoughts of Taco Bell had brought about this weird happening. It's my belief that we do this sort of thing all the time, perhaps not always as dramatically as this, but that our thoughts and preoccupations really do bring about our realities. It made me think of a book that our own Mr. Marsh wrote -- The Mentalist's Handbook. In it, Mr. Marsh characterizes all of our thoughts and feelings as making up a landscape called the aetheric plane. If we learn how to dwell in this place, move around, notice things, and create changes there, then our "real" lives can change too. It's an old idea in philosophy, and I think he's truly updated it to be relevant and accessible today.

Obviously, no one would want to focus their willpower to bring an ice-cold beverage hurtling toward their leg. That's why I'm going to give The Mentalist's Handbook a closer read and see how I can better use my evidently strong power of manifestation for better ends.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Outside the Lines

Linda Hanson came to the Castle in the Air studio today to teach her Watercolor Postcards class. Although I wasn't in the class I found myself drawn in time and time again throughout the day. Linda's classes are perfect for beginners, but even though I've painted since I was little, every time I have taken a class with her I've learned something new.

Today while I was peering in, I saw the most ingenious traveling paint set Linda had made. She took an old Altoids tin, finished the inside and outside with enamel paints, and put together her very own set of colors by filling little trays with squeezes of watercolor paint from tubes. Even though the tubes are expensive, this solution is more economical in the long run. A single 8ml tube like the ones in this photo might contain a lifetime supply of that color.

But it's not the economics of Linda's paint set that makes me love it. It's the fact that it's so personal. Linda only has to buy the colors that she wants, not set after set of pre-made palettes created by someone who she doesn't know and who doesn't know her. We don't all see the world in Dioxazine Violet or Vandyke Brown (my own current palette at home doesn't contain any red, yellow, or orange), so why should we be limited to the palette sold to us?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Fools All!

Welcome to April! If you stop by the store, you can pick this month's new calendar postcard. One of the little girls in this picture is playing a traditional French April Fools' Day joke on her friend, distracting her so she can pin a fish on her back. I sent my older girl to school with a stack of paper fish and a roll of tape so she could play some funny tricks on her friends. My younger one stopped by the store and got into April Fools' mischief with the Castle crew, who surprised me this morning with their own paper-craft prank!