visual artist

National Pencil Day - an "unofficial" holiday for writers and artists

Added on by Ellen Halloran.

It's time for another "unofficial" holiday.  Today, March 30th, is National Pencil Day.  I can't tell you who or what is responsible for the origin of this day, but it interests me as I try to fill in a part of my education.  I've been learning about and experimenting with different grades of pencils for drawing.   When thinking about pencils, most of us imagine the bright yellow, wood-encased instrument with a graphite tip and an eraser on the opposite end.  We call these 'lead' pencils even though they do not contain lead.  The 'lead' is really graphite that is mixed with varying amounts of clay to produce grades of hardness and blackness.  In pencil grading a 6H is harder than a 4H which is harder than a 2H.  The blackness grading scale is similar.  My 8B pencil produces a blacker line than the 6B.  There is also an F grade and this refers to a pencil that can be sharpened to a very fine point.

The image shown here gives you some idea of pencil gradations.  If you look closely you may be able to see the paw prints of an inquisitive cat.

Pencils are great.  You don't need electricity or a battery.  Pencils will work even when held upside down.  They won't freeze and they work under water (so I'm told).

You can find some notable pencil users in an internet search.  Over 300 pencils were used in the writing of John Steinbeck's East of Eden.  Vladimir Nabokov wrote and rewrote everything in pencil.  In his 1957 novel Pnin (which I haven't read) there is a descriptive and well-imagined reference to the use of a pencil sharpener.

"With the help of the janitor he screwed onto the side of the desk a pencil sharpener -- that highly satisfying, highly philosophical implement that goes ticonderoga-ticonderoga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning ethereal void as we all must."

                                                                       Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin [1957]

Get Ready for Pi Day

Added on by Ellen Halloran.


Saturday, March 14, 2015 will be a special day for pastry lovers and math fans.  On 3/14/15 at 9:26:53 a.m. (and p.m.) the time and date will mirror the first ten numerals of the "transcendental" number, and mathematical constant, pi.  This happens only once in a century.  Pi represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.  No matter how many times I read about transcendental numbers, I can't really understand what they are.  I simply know that the term appeals to me. That's π.

Even if you loathed geometry class you might enjoy taking advantage of the specials at pastry and pizza shops on Pi Day.

Wake Up! You've Got Mail!

Added on by Ellen Halloran.

Mr. Groundhog, you know there's another day in the bleak month of February that's even more widely observed than Groundhog Day.  While you were snoozing away in your warm little den the world celebrated Valentine's Day.  Wake up, Mr. Groundhog, you've got mail!

Oh, by the way, you were right about six more weeks of winter.

Rosa Bonheur

Added on by Ellen Halloran.

Rosa Bonheur was born on March 16, 1822.  Her parents were followers of a movement that favored the education of girls alongside boys.  Rosa's father was a painter and her mother taught piano.  Rosa was taught to paint by her father and by the age of 14 she was making copies of paintings in the Louvre; this was a traditional way of study for artists over the centuries.  Before setting out on her path as an artist and sculptor she copied the works of many artists she admired including Nicolas Poussin and Peter Paul Rubens.

Today Rosa Bonheur is regarded as an 'animalière,' an artist whose primary vision is the representation of animal forms in paintings and sculpture.  Critics of her work complain that she did nothing to expand the boundaries of art; essayists seem more interested in her non-conformist clothing than in her painting.

I see in her work a a traditional and sensitive understanding of the intertwined lives of animals and humans; she represented animals as she saw them in the surrounding countryside.  her work is skillfully executed and approaches an understanding of the animals themselves.  Her representation of beauty lives on in the twenty-first century.

                                                                    "Noonday Rest" by Rosa Bonheur

                                                                   "Noonday Rest" by Rosa Bonheur

Happy Groundhog's Day!

Added on by Ellen Halloran.

In 1921 Robert Frost published his poem "A Drumlin Woodchuck."  

A Drumlin Woodchuck


One thing has a shelving bank,

Another a rotting plank,

To give it cosier skies

And make up for its lack of size.  


My own strategic retreat

Is where two rocks meet,

And still more secure and snug,

A two-door burrow I dug.


With those in mind at my back

I can sit forth exposed to attack

As one who shrewdly pretends

That he and the world are friends.


All we who prefer to live,

Have a little whistle to give,

And flash, at the least alarm

We dive down under the farm.


We allow some time for guile

And don't come out for a while 

Either to eat or drink

We take occasion to think.


And if after the hunt goes past

And the double-barreled blast

(Like war and pestilence

And the loss of common sense),


If I can with confidence say

That still for another day,

Or even another year,

I will be there for you, my dear,


t will be because though small

As measured against All,

I have been so instinctively thorough

About my crevice and burrow.


Robert Frost  1874 - 1963



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Wassailing the Apple Trees

Added on by Ellen Halloran.

A winter landscape can look bleak and barren but it may contain the promise of plenty in the year to come.

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Much has been written (and refuted) about the benefits of talking to your plants, singing to them, and even playing music to promote their healthy growth.

An old English custom involved wassailing the apple trees on the Eve of Epiphany.  Workmen went from farm to farm with pitchers of cider.  Following the farmer into the fields and orchards, they encircled the apple trees and sang toasts to them.


"Here's to thee, old apple tree,

Whence thou mays't bud, and whence thou mays't blow!

And whence thou mays't bear apples enow!"


"So well they might bloom, so well they might bear

That we may have apples and cider this year!"

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A new field of scientific study is called 'plant neurobiology.'  It seeks to answer questions of plant intelligence.  Are plants capable of cognition, learning, communication with other plants, memory, response to environmental input, and information processing?  The wassailers would answer with a definitive 'yes!'

Clouds of Christmas Eve Morning

Added on by Ellen Halloran.

Piping down the valleys wild,

Piping songs of pleasant glee,

On a cloud I saw a child,

And he laughing said to me:


"Pipe a song about a Lamb."

So I piped with merry cheer;

"Piper, pipe that song again."

So I piped; he wept to hear.


        Songs of Innocence,  [1789 - 1790]

         Introduction, st.  1, 2


William Blake  1757 - 1827


Fifty Years On

Added on by Ellen Halloran.

To all my classmates, teachers, friends, and family who were together on that Friday afternoon and the days that followed: fifty years on and I still see you as though it were now.

We know that three hundred years before that day Shakespeare expressed our thoughts most clearly.


  When he shall die,

  Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night, 

And pay no heed to the garish sun. 


           Romeo and Juliet,  III, ii, 21 


Saint Teresa of Avila

Added on by Ellen Halloran.

Today, October 15th, is celebrated as the feast day of Saint Teresa of Avila.  This portrait of her was painted by Peter Paul Rubens many years after her death. 

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Teresa died at Alba de Tormes in 1582.  She died either shortly before midnight on October 4th or very early in the morning of October 15th.  This was the time when much of Europe was switching from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and the transition required the removal of October 5 - 14 for that year. 

In the twentieth century many women of intellect, including Beauvoir, tried to place Teresa in a pantheon of postmodern "subversives" within patriarchal power structures.    For her daughters in Carmel, and her thousands of followers over nearly five centuries, Teresa's wit, courage, tenacity, and lively intelligence can't be confined or defined by academic theories.




Thoughts on an Annual Tradition

Added on by Ellen Halloran.

It's almost Halloween and so it's time for the annual "guess how much this pumpkin weighs" contests.  You find them all over the country - in stores and farmers' markets and parking lots.  Sometimes it's just a large pumpkin sitting in the back of a pickup truck.  This one, like so many enormous pumpkins, seems to have almost collapsed under its own weight.  I wonder if this is the one that cartoon character Charlie Brown is always waiting for - The Great Pumpkin!  Wait a minute!  I think that Cinderella didn't make it home on time and the glitzy golden coach was turned back into a splendid and real orange pumpkin.  A pumpkin like this one will make many pies and custards and make many people happy. 


September Afternoon Visitors

Added on by Ellen Halloran.

The urban birds of my neighborhood seem to raise their families year round.  I shouldn't have been surprised to see such a young mourning dove outside the window yesterday afternoon, under the watchful eyes of an adult. 


I stopped reading the book in my hands and flipped the pages back to a most appropriate line of writing. 

  " . . . one listens to the mourning dove terracing its sweet calls . . ."



From " On Beauty and Being Just " by Elaine Scarry

Still Life with Watermelon, Pears, and Grapes

Added on by Ellen Halloran.

This painting by Lilly Martin Spencer is in the collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.  It is oil on canvas and is assumed to have been painted around the year 1860.  I love the balance of rich colors, the detail of texture given to the surface on which the fruit rests, and the top of the watermelon which appears to have been bitten in enjoyment.


I need to make a correction to my post of February 15th.  It's true that Lilly was painting right up until the time of her death, at her easel, but she died in New York City, not in Highland, New York.  She is buried next to her husband, Benjamin Rush Spencer, in Highland. 


Nearly every day of the year is a national food holiday here in the United States.  August 3 is National Watermelon Day.  Foods from apples to popcorn to zucchini all have their own commemorative day - sometimes a whole month will be dedicated to a particular food.   For some reason that I don't understand, National Watermelon Day is celebrated in August but July is National Watermelon Month.

Still Life with Watermelon, Pears, and Grapes    by Lilly Martin Spencer (circa 1860)

Still Life with Watermelon, Pears, and Grapes   by Lilly Martin Spencer (circa 1860)

A Botany Lesson

Added on by Ellen Halloran.

When I tell people that I use strawberry sepals in my collages they always ask "What's a sepal"? 

If you aren't ready to search the dictionary I can tell you that it's part of the structure of a flower.  They're the leafy green parts that add to the form of the calyx.  Look up  'flower' and you will usually find a simple illustration of the parts of a flower.

I cut the sepals from the strawberries and then use a process to clean and preserve them.  Here they are right after being cut from the strawberry.