Friday, July 31, 2009

A Friday Rebus

Here's a Friday rebus for you. Click the picture for a closer look at the five clues. Each one stands for a word -- all five together make a sentence.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!

Last night was a big night for my older girl, and for me too, as it was her first trip to the movies! This wasn't just any film, though, but a broadcast of The Metropolitan Opera's production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Why not start with a bang?

The Met began filming and distributing its performances to movie theatres a few years ago, and our opera-loving friend Julie K. was so enthusiastic about the shows, we just had to go with her. She loaned us her copy of the opera's libretto, so my daughter and I spent many evenings reading the story, singing the songs, and acting out some of the parts. Because the broadcast would be in Italian, we had to do our homework. By yesterday, she knew the story so well she could have been on stage with the pros!

What strange fun it was to arrive dressed for the opera, but to load up on popcorn, soda, and M&Ms! My girl said she particularly liked Rosina's pink taffeta costume, and spent the rest of the night recalling her favorite antics of Figaro and the rest of the comical cast.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Yes, Please!"

I posted last week about my dalliances with the potent drug coffee, but despite our espresso machine at Castle in the Air we owe just as much inspiration and productivity to the brewed leaf as we do the stewed bean.

Mr. Marsh always makes sure the teakettle gets on in time for 4 o'clock, and if any of us wander past his desk while the leaves are steeping, we can sing along with the daily screening of the ode by Professor Elemental, our tea-time hero.

My girls have discovered the joys of tea-time, too, and cheer for their afternoon cup. (I don't think they've seen the video yet, though!)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Last Call for Fall!

The nearsighted gnomes are crossing the Ts and dotting the Is on the "Castle Crier" email newsletter. If you don't already subscribe, sign up today to get first crack at all the great classes coming up this fall at Castle in the Air!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines

There must have been a little motor oil in my tea last Monday at Neverwas Haul, because it's a week later and I'm thinking of all the wonderful engineering projects that "never were." At Castle in the Air, of course, even mechanical marvels are a bit loftier. What a world we would be living in if flying machines like these were as common as iPods and the Toyota Prius!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Step Back

Any painter can tell you that part of the work is stepping back once in a while to look at the picture as a whole. If you stay too close to the canvas, all you see are details.

Amidst all the other projects at the store, we're preparing the relaunch of the Dromedary Press website. Collecting images of the various books and cards, along with concise descriptions of each, reminded me of the importance of stepping back and taking stock of one's work as an artist. What is the picture saying as a whole? Some projects come together quickly, others are chipped away at over the years as time and inspiration present themselves. An occasional step back to take in the bigger picture shows us what we're really working on, whether we knew it or not, and gives us a sense of the worlds we're creating as artists.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Cup of Wisdom

I have a memory from when I was young of my father Diarmid preparing coffee on the stovetop. Diarmid practiced Sufism, and as he boiled the Turkish grounds in a little metal pot, he sang the praises of the dark elixir, known for centuries as an aid to achieving mystical states.

My own personal voyages on coffee are a much more recent experience. Throughout college, I stayed away from caffeinated coffee, not pulling any all-nighters unless I was able to stay awake out of pure interest. (Okay, so I had a little tea now and then.) But on my recent trip to Italy, where espresso is a way of life and everyone was so hospitable to my family, I developed quite a taste for the stuff. So much so that the first thing I did when I came back to Castle in the Air was to install a little espresso maker for us. Now look at me -- I drink 3 coffees a day and am beginning to see what all the fuss was about, all those years ago.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Three Generations

We spent today at the shop putting the final touches on the autumn class mailer, and as I was talking with our class coordinator Shari on the phone, she mentioned an amazing fact: Caron Dunn had three generations of students in her class this past week! Mother, daughter, and grandmother spent the day together at Castle in the Air learning and creating together.

It got me thinking about all the sorts of people who take classes at Castle in the Air. Mothers come with children to have a special day. Friends reconnect in class with a favorite craft, or to celebrate a birthday or other special occasion. Some people come not knowing anyone in the class but leave with new friends and a real sense of accomplishment because of what they've made and learned.

In a class a few weeks ago, a student asked about the possibility of having a private class, just for her and her friends. Why not? Maybe you are the sort of person who celebrates with a special class at Castle in the Air!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Over the weekend, my family went strawberry picking with our good friend Aimee and her children at a farm in Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco. It's something we do together every year. There were so many berries, and they were literally falling off the bushes! You can see the sort of delectable abundance I'm talking about in the photo here that Aimee took. We all had so much fun stuffing our baskets (and our mouths) with the delicious fruits. When we reached the checkout stand, Duncan, the girls, and I weighed in more than 16 lbs. of strawberries. The farm had also thoughtfully put up an honesty box next to the checkout for everyone to drop in payment for all the berries they'd eaten in the field.

That night, most of the strawberries were made into jam and put away in the cupboard, but my little one made sure we put some berries in the freezer to bring out later and have with yogurt from the farmer's market. Oh my! Oh my!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Neverwas Haul

On Friday night, Duncan and I took up our friend (and my bandoneon repairman) Kimric Smythe's invitation to an afternoon of high tea and an evening of hijinx with the crew of Neverwas Haul. Neverwas is a nearly indescribable oddity, a self-propelled three-story Victorian house on wheels, brimming with wonders inside and out. It was moored at The Shipyard Studios just off Ashby Street in Berkeley, where the crew hosted the tea, cocktail hour, dinner, and stage show in full regalia as a team of demented inventors and industrialists. I daresay that for as amazing as the Neverwas Haul crew members were in character, it wasn't much of a stretch for any of them -- they're all mad about art and science and history!

Besides the people and the moving house, there were a number of inventions at the event, including a steam powered engine that also happened to play sirens and several copper whistles. Most impressive was a whizzing little Heron engine that looked about ready to explode. You can see a video of another of Kimric's inventions, a steam powered calliope, being played at the recent Maker Faire here.

I left the evening with my mind reeling and just giddy for Kimric and his comrades. The event, and Neverwas Haul and all its marvels, felt deliciously dangerous and was a perfect example of people diving in headfirst and committing themselves to an artistic project and way of life because there's no way they can't do it.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Peek-A-Boo Lovey

The multi-talented Caron Dunn has done it again, charming us with another precious project. We've recently seen Caron's felted friends, and her watercolor painting classes are always popular and fun. But this week she brought by her latest creation -- a delightful little doggy who plays peek-a-boo when he pops out of his festive cone.

Watch the video to see him do his thing, and visit the Online Shoppe to sign up for the class!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fabulous Beasts!

My husband Duncan first saw the amazing glasswork art of Andre Nigoghossian at a local crafts fair here in Berkeley. Once I met Andre and was transported to his fragile, beautiful world, I knew there had to be a way to bring his work to Castle in the Air.

After a bit of dreaming and a lot of work, just a few days ago Andre came to the store and unpacked a menagerie of fabulous glass creatures, as well as a collection of delicate keys and acorns, also made using the same lampwork method.

We've posted most of the collection to the growing "Exclusive Treasures" section of our Online Shoppe. Have a look there, and come by the store if you're able to meet these beasts up close!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Treasure Awaits!

For treasure-seekers brave and bold,
Who hunt for crystals and for gold,
We've something which you must behold!
Until tomorrow...
(In the meantime -- don't get Trolled!)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"This is just to say..."

Plum season is in full swing in Berkeley, and no matter if you hold your head up or let it hang down, you're going to see these sweet fruits. It doesn't last forever, though, so my family always gets as many as we can reach from the trees or in the grass. We stayed up late last night to make two plum cakes and five jars of jam. With 2/3 of a pound of sugar for every pound of fruit, the jam is like having candy on toast at breakfast!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Pages and People: Meighan Clough

One of the best things about our blog and Online Shoppe at Castle in the Air is the constant reminders it gives us of the people behind the various products and other items around the store. The web pages are like leaves in a scrapbook that tells part of the story of the shop and all the friends who've made it into such a magical place.

Meighan Clough is one such friend who I was reminded of recently.
Meighan was one of the first artists to work at Castle in the Air. She introduced the lively March Hare to our store, and her jester greeting card is on the racks here every Christmas season.

Meighan's in London now, married and following her dreams as a graphic designer and illustrator. It's wonderful to know that while the Castle in the Air family tree's roots dig deeper, and the trunk broadens with each year, that its branches extend all the way to Meighan's new home in England. You can see what she's up to at her portfolio and prints and cards websites.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Slaying the Dragons

"Saint Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle,
be our protection
against the malice
and snares of the devil."

-- Pope Leo XIII

Last summer was particularly hard for me, with many family and other personal issues coming to a head at the same time. I've always relied on art as my shield against the "malice and snares," no matter in what form they arrived. But when things got too tough, I realized that art by itself wasn't going to cut it. I needed some armor.

George the Dragonslayer is the patron saint for my family and for Castle in the Air, vanquishing fear with his decisive sword. Even though I was a fearsome fencer in college, these days I've dropped my sword in favor of my paintbrush, or perhaps...magic markers? Trying times call for a bit of magic, no?

Inspired by George's heavenly counterpart, the Archangel Michael, I took up my markers and forged some divine armor from a dress. The magic flowed into my new linen hauberk, with wraparound Dragonslaying heraldry! As soon as I put on the dress I knew I'd have the strength to face the world again. It's come in handy a few times since last summer, too!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Keep Going!

I'm working on a few secret projects that have to do with heraldry this week, so of course I've been looking at the Cammell coat of arms, along with collections of other families' crests.

I've always loved my family motto: "Perseverando." To me, it means that no matter what life throws my way, the best thing to do is to keep carrying on and trust that better days are right around the corner.

Mr. Marsh spotted a crest for a double-barrelled (two-part) name combining Chisenhale with his own last name. He said that he remembered seeing his family crest hanging on the wall when he was growing up, so he recognized the horse's head and the crosses on the shield in the coat of arms. Even though it seemed to us that the horse was getting a bit overwhelmed by what we could only assume were the Chisenhale parts of the crest, Mr. Marsh said that it would be all right, because of the Marsh family motto: "Nil Desperandum!" We had a good laugh over our respective family mottoes -- they seem like two sides of the same coin!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Dimitri Goes to the Library

We thought we would be lonely waiting while Commonplace Mouse travels the long road to the printer's and back all by himself, but today a lovely new friend showed up. Dimitri Dinosaur--who was accompanied by his friend, author and illustrator Julie Walrand--is the main character in a new story about dreams, friends, family, good manners, and ice cream. We're helping Dimitri and Julie turn their story into a book, and it will be out later this year and available at Castle in the Air!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Marbled Marvels

One of the most fun and educational experiences my children had in Italy was learning how to marble paper from our friends at Il Papiro, in Rome. We've been buying hand-marbled papers from them for years, so my girls had seen it before, but there's nothing like the chance to get one's feet wet, or hands in this case.

They took turns dripping paints into a tray lined with a layer of carrageenan sizing, then made patterns including peacock feathers and hearts by pulling fine combs and other tools through the floating paint. When the pattern was finished, they carefully laid a piece of paper in the tray and slowly dragged it out over the edge. The result? A beautiful piece of art! It was so sweet to watch the girls work, and the people at Il Papiro couldn't have been nicer.

A few weeks ago we posted photographs of some of the amazing marbled sheets to this weblog, and now they're all available through our Online Shoppe. E
ver since our day with the marblers, I've been fascinated with the technique and want to experience it again. Is there a master marbler out there who could teach a class in this fabulous art at Castle in the Air?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Starting from Scratch

When I first opened my store, I made a real effort to make it a place for artists who didn't want to be boxed in. I sold art supplies, but I didn't carry any finished products made from them. I was busy defining myself as a person and as an artist, and I wanted to leave other people the freedom to do the same thing for themselves.

It didn't take long before I realized that people don't mind a little nudge when it comes to what to do with a blank canvas. Like any artist, I'm often intimidated by all the possibilities that could come from the raw materials of the artistic life. The artists who visit Castle in the Air are no exception. We all need inspiration when our own wellspring isn't flowing as fast as we'd like. So, bit by bit, the store became a place where artists were free to pick up their art supplies and as much or as little direction as to what to do with them. Some people take our classes to make an amazing creation just like the sample they see in the display case, others are happy to pick up some new techniques and take it from there with their own ideas. Everyone comes to Castle in the Air with a different idea of what they want to take away, and I don't think many people go away disappointed.

Downstairs the busy shop is filled with people and papers and pens and books and inks and paints and dolls and decorations and baubles and blotters and whatsits. Upstairs it's empty. I like it. It feels like the right time for a blank canvas, a new start. These white walls are a place to dream. They hold the potential for all kinds of new inspiration. We know a little bit about how we want to continue, to make our loft into something new, but nothing's yet set in stone. Whatever happens with these walls, it will speak to the imagination in each of us, about our work and our lives as artists. It will be its own creation, and just as it was when the store first began, this is another chance to start afresh.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Independence Day

Appropriately enough, following yesterday's post about supporting independent, local shops, tomorrow is Independence Day in the United States. The American flag and other red-white-and-blue iconography has been so politicized for years, and all the disagreements and disappointments over what it means to be an American have left a bad taste in nearly everyone's mouth. But for the first time since I can remember, this year I began to feel like I really do belong in this country. To me, the United States is beginning to look like more of a place where people can celebrate their differences in constructive, positive ways. Wasn't that the idea in the first place?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Little Shops Make a Big Difference

One of the nicest surprises I had in Italy was to find so many similarities between the shops in the ancient towns we visited and the shops along Fourth Street in Berkeley, where Castle in the Air is. Of course, we don't have the luxury of being right down the street from the Pantheon like Natalizia's shop in Rome, pictured here. But philosophically and socially there is a lot to compare.

The Italian shops tended to be clustered together in warrens, shopping districts that were destinations in and of themselves. These parts of town had played host to merchants and buyers for centuries -- if the streets could talk, what stories they'd tell!

In a post like this about visiting shops in foreign countries, on a weblog that I use to promote my online store, it might sound odd for me to tout the virtues of shopping locally. But it's something that I sincerely believe in, and the afternoons spent in the little shops in Italy really drove it home for me. What struck me more than anything else was how vital the shops were to creating a sense of community in their neighborhoods, in their towns. Fourth Street is like that for those of us who work down here in Berkeley, and for our regular customers. After spending my childhood watching Fourth Street grow, and following years of running my store, getting lunch at the take-out place next door, buying treats for my dog across the street, and seeing all the other workers and customers day in and day out, Fourth Street is as much my home as anywhere else. I know it's that way for so many people in so many little districts around the world, and I believe it's something we all should cherish and support when we do our shopping.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Summer means summer camp, and my younger daughter keeps coming back from her day camp hikes in the Berkeley hills with wild turkey feathers she finds on the trail. Of course, kids aren't the only little creatures having summertime adventures. The turkeys themselves have waddled down from the woods at the top of the hills and are wreaking havoc on the UC campus and in the streets and gardens all over Berkeley and the neighboring towns. They're a bit like our local raccoons, who run in packs and aren't afraid of people, animals, or cars. In fact, the turkeys like to climb up on top of cars and leave scratches and little souvenirs on the hoods. For a university town, Berkeley comes up a bit short in the hooligan department, so the turkeys are filling a need by stirring up all kinds of trouble and I love it!

This painting is one of mine from when I co-taught an illustration class on Edward Lear's Owl and the Pussycat with Caron Dunn. Seems these fellows can play both sides of the law.