Sunday, January 31, 2016

women in history / art postcards / writing /


In the days before digital plenitude, museums and art galleries used to have postcards of the works on display--not just the big names but lesser ones too. I still have envelopes stuffed with postcards from trips I took in the 80s and 90s. They're great mementos in a way that googling paintings isn't--partly because I'm not as likely to google something that I saw 22 years ago, whereas I do look at the postcards now and then.

At one point I started collecting postcards of paintings of women. I thought I might write a book of short stories--each story about the woman in the painting. Botticelli, Vermeer, Bonnard, Kadinsky... Right. All these women from past centuries were depicted by men. In order to do so with such expression and detail, I would like to think the men had to see past the skin. But did they? Who knows.


I still want to write those stories. It won't be easy to do research, because historical details about domestic life--women's lives--weren't considered important enough to be documented. Women and women's concerns were invisible. What can I deduce from posture, cuffs, and collars? A woman peeling an apple for a child. Another reading a book. Is what I see enough to build a life?


Sunday, January 17, 2016

buying cheese with a stranger


I went to the grocery store to buy cheese. I remember when this store started out as a small family-run business, and at New Year's, if you were a regular, one of the brothers offered you a shot of Metaxa. The store is much larger now, and I haven't seen the brothers for years, though I still remember their names. Sam and Tasso.
But that's another story. This is about the man who wanted to tell me what cheese to buy.
I already knew what cheese I wanted and was waiting for the man standing in front of it at the display counter to move along. I finally leaned in front of him to reach for the cheese when he said, You shouldn't buy that. The one from Switzerland is better.
I said, I like the Canadian cheese.
He winced--sadly. The taste isn't...
I know, I said. I don't like cheese that's stinky. That's why I prefer the Canadian cheese. It has the same taste, but it's not as strong.
Then it can't taste the same.
Moot point.
We'd started out talking French but he'd switched to English when he decided that he spoke better English than I did French. It's something people who've lived in Montreal for a few years do. It's not always a conscious decision. Nor is the person who decides to take the lead always the better speaker. I can be stubborn too, preferring to continue in French. But this man's English was very good, and just then my head wasn't up to the grammar and syntax of j'aurais voulu vous dire--or wherever this conversation was going.
The Canadian cheese isn't as hard, he said.
I'm okay with how hard it is.
Now and then another shopper stretched to scoop a package of cheese from between us. We should probably have moved aside, but we didn't. We were talking. 
The Swiss cheese is better, he said now. Simply better.
Better how, I asked? Ethically better?
It tastes better.
But it comes from farther away. It's got a bigger carbon footprint.
He thought, then said, Not if your cheese is made in Vancouver.
Standing there in the cheese aisle, I couldn't check the distance--Montreal to Vancouver versus Montreal to some milky Alpine valley in Switzerland. I said, I don't think they make cheese in Vancouver.
He shrugged. Maybe not.
Though I didn't prefer the Canadian over the Swiss cheese because of its footprint.
Is it because the Swiss cheese costs more? he asked.
No, I said. Though $$$ might have been a factor.
He picked up the Swiss version and held it next to my cheese. Look! The Canadian cheese has more holes!
But I only pay for the cheese, not the holes.
Okay, he sighed. You know what you want.
I do, I said.
But it was nice talking to you. You have a good day.
Yeah, you too.
That was the first time we really looked at each other. All the while we were talking, we'd been gesturing at the cheese on display, the cheese in my hand. He had a tweed cap and a jowly, yet clean-shaven face. Maybe 70? When he looked at me, he must have seen a woman younger than he was, but no longer young, in a puffy winter coat.
We smiled and said goodbye, me with my Canadian cheese in hand.

Monday, January 11, 2016

biodegradable urn


Today I was given a bag containing a water soluble plastic bag with instructions to let cremated remains cool before placing them into the bag. Once in the bag--

But as I'm reading the instructions, I'm wondering what would happen if someone accidentally splashed water on the water soluble bag. How quickly does the bag dissolve? Would there be ashes--the cooled, cremated remains--all over the table or the floor? Or whoever was holding the water soluble bag before it solubled?

The bag is put inside a sand and gelatin urn, which the instructions claim is suitable for water burial. The urn will float "briefly", taking on water, and sink...

How long is briefly? Time to play a sonata if someone brought her cello out on the boat? I'm fond of cello solos.  Bach, if anyone is taking requests.

The urns will biodegrade completely within 3 days. However, the time the urn takes to sink varies depending on the weight of the remains. This is one time when it's not good to be slim and fashionable. Unless, of course, there's a mango and cranberry sunset. If there's any consciousness left in the remains, she/he/it might appreciate floating on the water to bask for a while. Sinking is all that's left to do for the rest of eternity, so who's in a rush?

The biodegradable urn can also be buried, though caution must be taken not to drip water onto the urn or it will begin to dissolve. Buried, the urn will break down within 3 months, depending on soil conditions.

I'll put the bag with the water soluble bag and instructions on a bookshelf. You have my permission to use it for my remains when the time comes. Only be careful with water. You'll have to get an urn too. I was only given the bag.


Sunday, January 3, 2016

january, 2016


Winter finally came to Montreal. I'm looking out my back door in the Pointe, an older neighbourhood of brick row houses and narrow backyards. Those are our garden chairs. That's clematis along the fence. It's still morning here. I didn't venture farther out.


I missed seeing snow. People complain about the shorter days and lack of sunlight during these winter months, but I find snow helps--reflecting what light we do get back at us, making the day luminescent. Hm,.. I'll try to remember that when I'm cursing while trudging along the not-yet-cleaned side walks.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

what's in an old dress? visiting a textile conservation lab in Vienna



History books describe voyages, trade routes, architecture, wars.

I'm interested in the more modest register of clothes. Clothes show us how people from other times and places lived--as well as about voyages, war, and trade routes. After all, fabrics were brought from the Orient to Europe; lace from Belgium to Spain; bone buttons from Upper Canada to England. With each royal marriage between countries, new fashions were introduced at court, filtering down to the population.


This dress is on display at the McCord Museum in Montreal. Its date is 1882. From its style and the fabric, a textile conservator can make an educated guess as to where it came from and the social status of the woman who wore it. Sure, she had status. Look at the gorgeous embroidered trim and matching shell buttons. The buttons are machine-made, which make me wonder how they're made and where they came from.

And underneath the dress, what did the woman wear? There's always the ubiquitous chemise, some variation of which women wore next to their skin for centuries.


Bras as we know them, weren't worn until the 1900s. Before then, depending on the ideal silhouette of the time, breasts were either squished/half-supported with a corset, let hang, or engirdled. The medical debate about the necessity of strapping women into corsets to keep their innards in place is pretty funny. Yay for the good sense of the Rational Dress Society (1881) who opposed constricting corsets, unwieldy skirts, impossible heels. There's a history of feminism to be deduced from the changing line of the bodices of dresses.  

In textile conservation, clothes are called costumes. That was the first thing I learned as I began to do research. The next is that there is nothing as damaging to textiles as sunlight--or light in general. And moths. Moths can do worse damage, but you might not have moths, whereas light is pervasive.

Before I went to Austria this past fall, I wrote some letters and was granted permission to visit the textile laboratory of the Institute of Conservation in Vienna, where several students explained their projects to me.

I was a little hampered by not being able to take pictures. I was a little hampered because I persisted in trying to understand in German. I was a little hampered because some of what people used to wear simply didn't make sense.

One object was a hat that looked like a 1960s bouffant hairstyle created with emerald green feathers. Imagine it.

I assumed it was a woman's hat, but the student assured me it was for a man--in fact, for a military man. It was a ceremonial military hat worn in the early 1900s. She wasn't actually working on the feathers and the hat, which were in good condition, but the hat box. There had been a tear and she was dyeing swatches of canvas to try to match the colour to patch it. She had hotplates, scales, beakers, and pages of chemical equations to concoct the exact colour.


That evening, back at the hotel, still not understanding what this extravagantly green-feathered hat was supposed to look like, I did a search and found this photo of Kaiser Franz Josef. I suppose it's no more ridiculous than the guards' hats at Buckingham Palace.


I mention moths above. One of the objects being worked on was a 15th-century saint's cassock that had been kept in a monastery where it was observed to have moth holes. Conservation had to wait until the church granted permission to open the reliquary in which the robe was tightly rolled. That's what that large wax seal is: permission granted.
Many photos had to be taken--and will be taken yet. Many, many, many. Documentation before, during, every step of the way. So many photos that the robe wasn't even ready to be unrolled yet while I was there. However, I was there when the string was cut and the rolled cassock was very carefully lifted out.


Again, I had to wait to get back to the hotel that evening to see who this St. Joannis a Capistrano was: the patron saint of Hungary, as well as of soldiers and lawyers.
I don't know my saints, but the name nagged at me until I did more research and found out that there are Spanish mission houses in the US named after him too. We visited one when we were in Texas in 2008.


I attach no significance to the coincidence, but I'm always tickled when life throws one at me.

There were a few interesting objects under treatment in the textile lab. I took copious notes and am thinking of how I want to incorporate what I've learned in this next novel I'm working on. I'll probably only use a small fraction, but who knows where else the research might lead?

I wasn't supposed to take pics of the objects but here's one I must have snapped accidentally.


I shouldn't say what it is... but it belonged to a woman who was related to Marie Antoinette. The dress didn't interest me as much as the flower decorations along the longer piece. They're made of knotted threads. The conservation student was trying to make some herself but had so far only succeeding in tangling the knots. I'm thinking only a child's fingers could have done work that fine. A child living in the 1700s, crouched on a stool, having to work by candlelight.

Monday, December 7, 2015

the fine, old art of gold leafing


Old as in the Egyptians were doing it, and it's still being done as it was done then. It's called water gilding in English. In German, it's called Branntweinvergoldung, which means brandy gilding. Interesting, the difference in emphasis.

When I was in Austria in October, my cousin, who is a master gold-leafer, took me into her workshop. This past week I've been transcribing my videos, looking up words, and doing my best to understand. So many details. There are up to 20 steps--and one can't tell if a mistake was made until the final step when polishing the gold.

The first time I saw gold leafing done (when I was younger), my uncle claimed to use a wild boar's tooth as a polisher. It's since been discovered that agate has the same degree of hardness as tooth enamel, so now agates are used. Easier to come by than wild boar's teeth.

The agates are cut and shaped, though, as if they were teeth. As I remember the colour of my uncle's wild boar tooth polisher, it was the same translucent grey.
What you might also notice on that suede cushion on the table is that my cousin has several sheets of gold leaf to hand. You might think it's like aluminium foil. Each leaf is four thousandth of a millimetre. It doesn't only crinkle, it dissolves into flecks at the slightest wrong move. She flips the leaves with her icing spreader knife, slices pieces to fit, and drops them, one by one, with a brush onto the prepared surface.
It looks easy to watch. Then she says, do you want to try, and of course I ruin my evanescent wing of gold. Nothing to do but lick the insubstantial shiny specks off my fingers. It'll be the only chance I ever get to eat 23 karat gold.


This is a demonstration piece that shows some of the steps in gold-leafing. The dull yellow is bole made of volcanic earth and other ingredients. Bole can be bought, but this bole is made from a recipe handed down from our great-grandfather. That red tongue is bole as well. The white at the bottom is gesso. The bole goes on top of the gesso. The carving is of basswood. Some of the gold has been burnished, some hasn't yet.

Here's a fellow anxiously awaiting his turn. He had the bad luck to have been restored by someone who didn't clean him properly before applying gold leaf, so that the gold has begun to flake off. Here, he will be cleaned, regilt, and freshened up.


 A huge thank you to Monika for her patience and expertise. Dankeschön!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Queen Victoria in St-Henri

Yesterday I saw Queen Victoria between a pedestrian and a bike path in St-Henri.
Queen V, her consort, and some architectural knick-knacks rimmed with the winter's first ice, on a bed of dead leaves.   




There are so many old and stately buildings in Montreal that stand neglected and empty, until they're eventually knocked down to build yet more condos. I love that someone reclaimed these pieces and put them on display, though you almost have to be a local to know where to find them. I only happened on them by chance. 
St-Henri is the poor, working-class neighbourhood Gabrielle Roy described in her novel Bonheur d'Occasion (1945). In English, The Tin Flute. The book won the Prix Femina and the Governor General's Award, among others. In it, the inhabitants of the miserable tenement houses of St-Henri look up at the rich English houses on the mountain. 

All these years later, you can stand in the mean, garbage-strewn parkette the city has named after Gabrielle Roy, and look up at the same fine stone houses on the mountain. I suppose there's social progress of sorts. Francophones live in Westmount too now.