There's no better celebration of any season than the decorated tree adorned with the rich symbolism of nature—my ritual to inform and inspire you in the journey called life.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

harvest and abundance

T H A N K S G I V I N G   is a celebration of the fall harvest, mainly in the United States and Canada, although it is celebrated on different days—the second Monday in October in Canada and the fourth Thursday in November in the United States. A recent Thanksgiving for this American was begun by waking up and looking out the window at the first fresh snow of the season in Toronto, Canada. Growing up in the American South, a white Christmas is a lot to ask for, but this was a new kind of Thanksgiving—the first cold one away from family. That trip was a memorable one and the snow added a fresh, cold, crispness to the air. I'll never forget that day for many reasons, but the memory of the snow will be the one that sticks.

W H E A T,  of course is always a large part of any harvest and is traditionally a symbol of the abundance of the season. Christmas ornaments made of wheat (a Polish and Scandanavian tradition) symbolize a thanksgiving for the harvest, so the theme can be carried throughout the season. Being thankful for the abundance of life is always cause for celebration, but it is tempered by knowing that abundance is hard won. The glass ornaments shown in the photo (above, right) are symbols of home and abundance. Variations of cottage house ornaments with turkeys in front were created in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia and first produced in the 1920's (these are new reproductions from Germany).

M Y   K I T T Y  Luci, who I introduced a few posts back has had an abundant and long life, but this Thanksgiving, while I still have her (she is fast being overcome by an especially nasty cancer on her tongue), the true test is to be thankful for all the times I have had with her, knowing that her days are numbered. She was a stray that appeared in my mine and my partner's life just before Thanksgiving in 1994. We brought her into our household and even after Lowell (my partner then) and I went our separate ways a number of years later, I've always felt like she was our child. It is because she found us that I feel especially lucky to have had such a wonderful life with her. And I am thankful to have been the one to keep her all these years. She has been a profound presence in my life (and in my lap as I write this). I'm not sure what I'll do without my beautiful little muse.

A S   A  B O Y, Thanksgiving always meant a big turkey and sage cornbread dressing with fresh giblet gravy, potato salad, creamed corn, green beans seasoned with pork, and cranberry sauce sliced from the can. I remember bringing in the day excitedly by watching the pomp and circumstance of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV with its gigantic helium balloons—with the Tom Turkey float ushering in a float with Santa on his sleigh. It was the beginning of the Christmas season then. Now, it starts as early as October.

A N D   S O  it is again. As I've said before, home is wherever my cats are. This warm, purring creature in my lap is the only reason I need to be thankful right now. A poem from a book my co-worker, Donna (also a lover of cats) gave me yesterday sums it up:

Cats may not be our servants
or our defenders,
but give us life,
Lying softly in laps, tuning their 
    heartbeats to our own,
singing away sorrow,
easing the mind,
unraveling the day.
Sharing the empty dark.
Like flowers, inexhaustible in beauty.
Like flowers, most necessary—
in ways we scarcely understand,
Healers, Companions.
                    —Pam Brown 

TURKEY AND THE STRAW | (Top, right), these glass ornaments are symbols of home and abundance. The sheaves of wheat ornaments were made in Czechoslovakia for Martha by Mail a few years back The milk glass turkey candy dish also came from Martha by Mail. The hand-blown and hand-painted turkey cottage ornaments were made by a German company named Zehetner-Smith Design. 

TOM TURKEY |  (Middle, left), the goofy, but lovable Tom Turkey float in the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (even though I've only seen it on TV) has signaled the start of the Christmas season nearly every year since I was a boy.

YIN AND YANG | (Bottom, right), Abella (top) and Luci almost form a yin and yang figure on the bed last night—a rare glimpse of sisterly love. 

collecting, photography and styling by Darryl Moland

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

big thing, small package

A C O R N S, as we all know, are the seeds of the mighty oak tree. These beautiful little capped nuts were one of the main food sources of the nomadic tribes in prehistoric Europe and were considered sacred because they provided food, housing and fire. The oak tree was revered in many cultures because it represented strength and endurance, especially for the Celts and Norse. Oak wood is traditionally burned for the Yule fire on Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year). Burning an oak Yule log represents the rebirth of the sun and the days becoming longer.

T H E   D R U I D S  thought of the oak as imparting divine knowledge if you listened to the whispering secrets in the wind-rustled leaves. Acorns were thought to give one magical powers and the gift of prophecy when eaten. Aside from the very beauty of acorns, from all accounts, they and the trees they become hold a revered place in history. I'm always in awe of a beautiful old oak tree, tree-hugger that I am.

T H E   L I V E   O A K   is one of my favorite types of oak trees. Their gnarled down-swept limbs are usually hanging with Spanish moss and have an amazing mystical quality. Another unusual quality is that these trees are evergreen (their branches don't loose all their leaves in the winter). Some of the most beautiful specimens I've seen are on Sapelo Island, Georgia an hour south of Savannah (not counting the ferry trip to the island). The human history of this island is quite long and varied, dating back at least 4,500 years, Not far from Sapelo, is Cumberland Island. It is Georgia's southernmost barrier island and is known for its pristine and wide primordial beaches abundant with wild horses running free and sea turtles laying their eggs. It is also known as the wedding spot for John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette when they were married there in 1996 (rest their souls).

F O R   T H E   F I R S T  anniversary (of another memorable night), Jon surprised me with tickets for Halloween night at Cavalia, which is currently running in Atlanta. The artistic director of this production, Normande Latourelle, helped build Cirque du Soliel during its most raw and creative years (1985-1990). In one of the many beautiful scenarios in the production, there was one with falling leaves (abstract leaf-shaped tissue), which Jon and I collected at the end of the performance while waiting on our visit to the stables afterwards to see all the incredible horses (almost 60 of them!). Some of these leaves are used in the background of the photo of part of my acorn ornament collection (above, right). I've not been especially enthralled by the last few traveling productions of Cirque du Soleil, but this is something entirely new and refreshing (it is also performed under a tent, shown below), and visually explores horses in art history along with the beautiful visceral bond between horses and humans. The most intimate moments of the production were when the human performers, were alone in playful moments with the horses—which were absolutely amazing. The beginning scenes were so poetically visual, tears welled up in my eyes. It was a stunningly beautiful night.

SEEDS OF LIFE | Some of my glass acorn ornament collection (above, left) nestled in an acorn-shaped ceramic bowl and a pressed paper acorn ornament box (from Martha Stewart Crafts). Ornaments are both new and antique from a variety of sources [Martha by Mail, Martha Stewart Everyday Collection from Kmart, Inge-Glas of Germany (star-capped) and Old World Christmas Ornaments, among others). 

HORSE WHISPERERS | The Cavalia logo art (above, right) brilliantly reflects two two-legged human figures with the four-legged horse illustration. Ironically, acorns can be toxic (in large quantities) to horses because of the tannin (an acidic chemical) content. 

BIG TOP | Far superior in many ways than some of the most recent traveling Cirque du Soleil productions under their signature blue and gold big top, Cavalia is performed under a large tent that is simply white (above). 

collecting, photography and styling by Darryl Moland

Monday, November 9, 2009

free fall

Laden Autumn here I stand
Worn of heart,

    and weak of hand:
Nought but rest seems 
    good to me,
Speak the word that 

    sets me free.
                —William Morris  

F A L L   T R E E S  become a saturated blaze of earthy color after a spring and summer of growth. The first artwork I created that got any attention started with a crudely painted bare tree trunk and limbs, then daubed with red, green, brown and yellow leaves applied with bits of sponge dipped in tempera paint, which I'm recreating in the photo at right (except with glass leaf ornaments). I did this sponge painting in kindergarten and proudly brought it home to give to my mother. She considered it a "masterpiece" (as only a mother can do). She kept the tree painting folded neatly in her drawer for as long as I can remember and would pull it out occasionally to show to friends and relatives.

P A I N T I N G  was one of the first indications that I had an eye for arts and crafts. My mother keeping and cherishing that painting as she did let me know it was nothing ordinary. Her tucking it away for safekeeping like it was something precious probably had more to do with my becoming a visual artist than any raw talent I ever had. It gave me the confidence inherent in creating something and taught me to love expressing myself with the raw materials of color, texture and form. My eyes turned into visual sponges—like those bits of paint-soaked sponge that I used to create that fall tree. My interest in absorbing the visual beauty of my surroundings started right then and there.

M Y   K I N D E R G A R T E N  teacher was also our next-door-neighbor where I grew up, so school was an easier transition for me than a lot of kids. I always excelled in school because I loved the adventure of learning new things. I was one of the geeky popular kids—the good-grade set with social skills. My parents were both actively involved in my sibling's lives—as stretched out as they were (I came along ten years after my brother Mal). One or both of my parents was always nearby in all our extracurricular endeavors (the band for my sister and I, and the football team for my two brothers), so I was what they called one of the "good kids," probably only because I knew mother and daddy would promptly find out if I ever did anything wrong.

M O T H E R   A L W A Y S  let me take charge of decorating the Christmas tree each year, once I was old enough to do so, and it became a lifelong passion that has grown to obsessive proportions. That's why I'm doing this blog. I have a lot to share and have amassed an enormous array of decorations and ephemera with which to do it. I'm less than two years away from being fifty, so it seems like a natural progression during the autumn years of my life. It is also a means by which to collect my thoughts and ideas for a book called "The Decorated Tree" that I want to publish someday. And it's all about freeing this dream I've had for years and making it a reality.

W I L L I A M   M O R R I S, who wrote the short poem that begins this blog post was a leader in the Arts and Crafts movement begun in the late 19th century. The more I read about him (shown, left, at age 37), the more it seems my ideas about resolving craft with industrialization are in alignment. Today, that means retooling a new appreciation of things still well-made by industry by sorting through the mounds of schlock that is mass-marketed. Modern society, as Morris feared, has become all about being fast and cheap and has lost a lot of historical context in translation. He rejected the opulence of the Victorian era and urged a return to medieval traditions of design, craftsmanship and community. Aside from being a poet, an artist and a social reformer, he is probably most well-known for perfecting the use of woodblocks for printing the nature-inspired wallpaper and textiles he designed, many of which are still in use today in one form or another. His political writings were geared toward a push away from the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution and a longing for a society in which people could enjoy craftsmanship and simplicity of expression.

M Y   S I G H T S  are set less broadly than his (or maybe not), but in any account, that is exactly what I want to do with the holiday tree, which has all but become a meaningless decorative concoction without much reverence to the natural world and the history that created it. It hasn't always been that way. I believe that life ultimately finds its true meaning in nature and we must revere our history. And like a vibrant falling leaf, I hope to find good ground to nourish and tap into a time-honored wellspring of renewed ideas. 

MEMORY TREE | Almost 40 years later, I recreate that kindergarten tree painting (above, right), except, instead of daubs of paint sponged on for leaves, there are glass ornaments. The broad leaves are made by Department 56, the narrow ones are from Cost Plus World Market (past season). The tree is topped by an owl ornament from West Elm (past season). Surrounded by moss and real autumn leaves, the nut ornaments (atop the faux-finished memory box) symbolize rebirth: a glittered-glass walnut by Martha Stewart Everyday at Kmart, a walnut and a chestnut by Inge Glas (past seasons). 

KEEPSAKE MEMORIES| Here I am at about age 10 next to the Christmas tree at home (in 1971), accompanied by a handmade Christmas card painted for my parents with my school picture pasted on it (above, center) made around the same time. 

ARTIST AND CRAFTSMAN | William Morris (bottom, left), born in 1837, was directly inspired by the flora and fauna of the natural world and warned of the dehumanizing effect of the Industrial Revolution. He is known as the Father of the Arts and Crafts movement which got its start in the latter 1800's. Painting by George Frederic Watts, circa 1870. 

©2009 DARRYL MOLAND | ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, collecting, photography and styling by Darryl Moland. Painting of William Morris by George Frederic Watts.