Memories and Mementos

“What are we going to do with all of these pictures?”

“What pictures, which ones?” I replied.

“All of them: all of the pictures, photos, albums, frames, paintings, prints, just everything.”

Well, I hadn’t given it much thought, but really, what are we going to do with all of this stuff? We had downsized and moved from our single family home to a smaller townhome several years ago. In the process of getting that home ready to sell, I had taken down all of our pictures, photos of family and family vacations, and packed them away in plastic bins. Now nearly four years after that move we are still wondering what to do with many of these mementos and memories, most of them still packed away.

When I was younger and first started taking photographs, I concentrated primarily on landscape photography. Years before digital cameras became popular I would shoot slide film in my Canon AE1 and occasionally have enlargements printed, many of which I framed and decorated my apartment. The prints are long gone but the slide film still looks great, beautiful rich colors after more than forty years.

I switched to a digital camera, also a Canon, when they came out and began taking more pictures of family and friends, documenting our trips and vacations, birthdays and holidays. And that introduced the beginnings of what would be a lifelong challenge: how to share and display, or store for posterity, the many, many images a digital camera produced.

When I got my first iPhone I was all set. Whereas before, one had to remember to bring the camera (or leave it in the car, always at the ready) an iPhone was the perfect accessory: I never went anywhere without my phone and consequently my camera was always with me.

Still the problem remained, what to do with all of these images? Before cloud storage enabled us to archive unlimited amounts of data, and images, I would back up my digital images on the computer and eventually transfer them to CDs. Great for storing photos, not so great for sharing them.

I’ve since been uploading many of my photos to Shutterfly. They have sharing options and also print capabilities for cards, enlargements, even photo books. I have friends who use digital frames that act like mini slideshows; the newer frames allow uploading the images to the internet (cloud servers!) and as long as the display is connected to the internet, any family member can view the display. Bluetooth or wifi-enabled devices are another option.

I’ve been printing photobooks now for years. They have taken the place of photo albums in our home. But like albums from our past, they have started to take up room on the book shelves. We visited friends recently and enjoyed looking through one of their old leather-bound albums, many of the photographs in black and white or sepia-toned. One could almost imagine the passage of time slowing down for a bit as we leafed-through and commented on their old family photos. It doesn’t feel quite the same when you scroll thru endless images on your phone!

I still don’t have a solution for the boxes of photos and albums we have accumulated through the years. We have thought about scanning all of the “pre digital” images. I am a little distraught over having lost or misplaced the CDs I used for “safe secure image storage” in the past. I have found several of the CDs I created have not held up well: the data has either become corrupted or otherwise unreadable. Perhaps storing the images on a DVD would work better. At some point I will probably upload all of our images to Shutterfly or some other third party service. I’ve put many images on a small external hard drive, not sure if that is my final answer yet or not.

What about you all? Is this a problem you have faced before? Any possible solutions you have tried successfully? If so, please share your success stories in the comments below. Love to hear from you!

Portrait of a Distinguished Gentleman

He’s sitting leaning a bit forward in his chair—with his upright posture it could even be a stool. Though out of view, his hands are resting comfortably, naturally at his side, not fidgeting. The pose is classic three-quarter view, the head turned towards the observer. He wears a dark grey striped suit coat, red-patterned tie over a crisp white shirt, a small lapel pin the only piece of jewelry. A full head of graying, nearly silver hair, warm flesh tones, a slight smile. The umber background appears to lighten around his face, darkens towards the bottom of the painting. The size of the painting, and the intricate gold frame, indicate that this is a corporate portrait, too large to hang over the mantle in one’s home but not out of place in a lobby or a corporate boardroom. He is a Distinguished Gentlemen whatever  his occupation might have been. 

What is it about us that we will memorialize our presence in this manner, capturing our idealized selves for posterity with oil on linen canvas, known and yet unknown? I bought this painting at an estate auction, the artist and the sitter both strangers to me. I don’t know them but I know a bit of their history and they both take their place in a very long line of artists and portraits made of distinguished gentlemen.

Have you been to a wedding or perhaps been in that lineup of groom and his best man and groomsmen? “Where do we stand? Where do we look?” And most importantly, “What do I do with my hands?” Some portraits handle the problem of hands by not painting them in, giving us only a portion of the subject. Perhaps the easiest solution is that of Rembrandt’s: tuck the hand under your coat. I like Franz Hals’ clever solution: his subject holds onto a book (which he has written) and the composition forces us to consider the book as nearly an important element as the subject’s own face.

One would expect the face to be the center of attention in a portrait (portrait: a likeness of a person, especially of the face, as a painting, drawing, or photograph. from the Latin “portrahere,” translated as “to drag out, reveal, expose.”) Yet in several of these historical examples, the hands or even the costume appear to be the center of attention. Perhaps the purpose here is to reveal or expose the character and nature of the subject even more so than could the face. Titian’s “Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap” ca 1510, overwhelms us with his beautiful ermine collar. Likewise the voluminous red robe and white wig of Largilliere’s “Portrait of a Gentleman” nearly obscures the smiling face of the sitter, though viewed up close, the rosy complexion and red lips reinforce the color palette and sense of privilege. The portrait of Juan de Pareja by the Spanish painter Velasques from 1650 was shocking at the time for the identity of the individual portrayed. I wonder if perhaps the white delicate collar, contrasting with that beard and full head of hair, was also a bit of a shock? All of the portraits shown here include some type of shirt or collar of white separating the flesh tones from the darker clothing.

My favorite of the lot is also the most recent. Jamie Wyeth’s painting of Andy Warhol and his daschund Archie, from 1976 places the subject squarely in front of us. Shocking white wig, white face, white shirt collar, and an exposed arm with hands holding Archie who also stares right at us. Quite a portrait indeed.

When I took art history in college, and later saw great art in person, I was always struck by the discrepancy of size. Paintings reproduced in books or viewed as film slides projected in a classroom gave no indication of their incredible power when later viewed up close in a gallery. Many of them were quite large, far larger than the 8”x10” framed photographs of family that many of us have in our homes. Even those seem to have shrunk down a bit as they have been replaced by images viewed online or in a digital frame.

As an artist I’ve never done a portrait, not even a self portrait. I had any number of life drawing classes in art school but the subject matter never really captured my attention. Perhaps at the time, if I had seen one of Chuck Close’s paintings up close, and really discovered his use of texture, then I might have attempted the challenging genre. The best of portraiture reveals more than surface texture, paint colors swirled across stretched canvas. It can reveal the subject, a psychological study perhaps, but great paintings also reveal the artist. I don’t know which takes precedence, we do after all want our portraits to at least resemble the sitter; but we lean in even closer when we feel we are reading the mind of the artist, following his thoughts.

Portrait of Ron, smiling with arms crossed

From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. Isaiah 64:4 ESV


TOP IMAGE
Portrait of a Distinguished Gentleman, by Stephen Craighead

TOP ROW
Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap, by Titian ca. 1510
Portrait of Samuel Ampzing, by Frans Hals 1630
Rembrandt Self Portrait, 1636
Juan de Pareja, by Diego Velázquez 1650

BOTTOM ROW
Portrait of a Gentleman, by Nicholas Largilliere, about 1725
Portrait of the Artist, by John Vanderlyn 1800 
Portrait of the Artist, by Charles Loring Elliot 1850
Portrait of Andy, by James Wyeth 1976

BOTTOM IMAGE
Ron With Smile and Arms Crossed, Owen Mills

Post-Apocalypse Now

There seems to be no end to “end of the world” movies and TV shows recently. A twist in the plot here or there but they all share similar DNA. Whether it’s an individual (“only you can save the world!”) or a group of survivors just trying to make it to the end of that night’s episode alive— they all explore how we might react under the harshest of conditions.

The director M. Night Shyamalan has a new movie out, Knock at the Cabin that updates the biblical End of the World story. I haven’t seen the movie yet, and this isn’t really a movie review, but it’s premise and themes are oddly tracking with a show that I am watching, The Last of Us, over on HBO. While the one is about ushering in or preventing the Apocalypse, the television series is about living in a dystopian post-apocalyptic world structured around a quest narrative. Love, loss, sacrifice, vengeance, judgment, and hope are some of the big themes both shows work through in varying ways.

However, before we compare and contrast these two shows, I want to take a side trip. For the past several months I have been reading and hearing ALOT about AI and ChatGPT. So in the interests of trying something new I thought I would interview the bot and let it (he/she/them?) write my blogpost today. The results were very…interesting. My questions below in bold type, the Chat’s answers follow.


I asked the Chatbot to write a paragraph describing the similarities in the apocalyptic worldview of the movie “Knock at the Cabin” and the HBO series “The Last of Us” and the presence, or lack thereof, of hope.

Both “Knock at the Cabin” and “The Last of Us” present a bleak and devastating world, post-apocalyptic and characterized by the collapse of human society due to a catastrophic event. The movies depict a world where survival is the main priority and people are struggling to make ends meet while facing various obstacles and threats, including mutated creatures and hostile human factions. Despite the grim reality, there is still a glimmer of hope in both stories, as the main characters work towards rebuilding and preserving what’s left of humanity. However, this hope is often fragile and uncertain, constantly tested by the harsh realities of the new world.

Overall, both works present a similar bleak worldview of a post-apocalyptic world but with a nuanced portrayal of the presence of hope.

“Knock at the Cabin” portrays the four figures of the Apocalypse demanding a sacrifice. How does this subvert our normal reading of the Four Horsemen?

“Knock at the Cabin” portrays the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as demanding a sacrifice, which subverts the typical interpretation of the Four Horsemen as symbols of destruction and judgement in the book of Revelation in the Bible. In the movie, the Horsemen are not just passive symbols of the end of the world, but active agents who require a sacrifice to be made in order to bring about the end. This shift in the role of the Horsemen adds a new layer of meaning to the story, as it emphasizes the idea that the end of the world is not just a inevitable outcome, but something that can be actively brought about through the actions of human beings.

By presenting the Horsemen as demanding a sacrifice, “Knock at the Cabin” challenges our conventional understanding of the Four Horsemen and their role in the end of the world, suggesting that the end is not just a matter of fate but also a result of human agency.

Are there any biblical themes in “The Last of Us” show on HBO?

Yes, “The Last of Us” series on HBO draws on various biblical themes. For example, the story of a father-daughter relationship and the theme of sacrifice, can be seen as references to the story of Abraham and Isaac from the Bible. The concept of a pandemic bringing about the end of the world can also be interpreted as a commentary on the biblical notion of judgement and the end times. Additionally, the idea of a chosen one or messiah figure, who must sacrifice themselves for the greater good, is also a recurring biblical theme that appears in the show. These themes add depth to the story and bring a spiritual dimension to the post-apocalyptic world portrayed in “The Last of Us.”

If the character of Ellie in The Last of Us” is portrayed as a messiah figure, what would be her likely future?

If Ellie in “The Last of Us” is portrayed as a messiah figure, her future would likely involve her making significant sacrifices and facing significant challenges in her quest to save humanity and bring about a better future. In such a portrayal, Ellie would be seen as a symbol of hope, who brings about change and redemption in the bleak and desolate world of the post-apocalyptic setting.

However, her journey would also likely be fraught with difficulties, as she would face resistance from those who are unwilling to change, as well as the harsh realities of the post-apocalyptic world, such as the threat of infected creatures and hostile human factions.

Ultimately, the future of Ellie as a messiah figure would be shaped by the choices she makes and the sacrifices she is willing to make in the pursuit of a better future. Whether she succeeds in bringing about a new dawn or not, her journey as a messiah figure would likely be one of struggle, sacrifice, and ultimate redemption.

If the character of Ellie in “the last of us” is accurately portrayed as being immune from the cordyceps infection, how would her condition be exploited by the ruling authorities?

In a world where the majority of the population is affected by the cordyceps infection, a person who is immune would be considered a valuable asset. For example, the ruling authorities might try to use Ellie as a source of information and research to better understand the nature of the infection and find a cure. They may also try to use her as a weapon, forcing her to venture into infected areas to gather information or carry out dangerous missions.

Additionally, the ruling authorities may try to use Ellie’s immunity as a means of maintaining control over the population. By exploiting her condition, they could manipulate the public into following their rules and regulations, or even use her as a propaganda tool to promote their own interests.

Overall, if Ellie is portrayed as being immune from the cordyceps infection, her condition would likely be exploited by the ruling authorities in a variety of ways, as they would see her as a valuable asset in their attempts to maintain control over the world and find a cure for the infection.

If the cordyceps infection controls the victims brain, and if Ellie is immune, would examining her brain likely reveal clues to her immunity?

Yes, if the cordyceps infection is portrayed as controlling the victim’s brain and Ellie is immune, examining her brain would likely reveal clues to her immunity. As the cordyceps infection takes over the victim’s brain, it would likely leave its mark on the brain’s structure and function. By comparing Ellie’s brain to the brains of infected individuals, researchers could potentially identify the differences that confer her immunity and gain insights into the mechanism of the cordyceps infection.

This information could be crucial in developing a cure for the infection, as understanding the basis of Ellie’s immunity could provide a starting point for developing a vaccine or other treatment. Additionally, by examining Ellie’s brain, researchers could gain a better understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying the control of the cordyceps infection, which could be applied to developing more effective therapies.

Overall, examining Ellie’s brain would likely be a valuable tool in gaining insights into the cordyceps infection and developing a cure for those affected.

So a likely scenario would be the sacrifice of Ellie, her resulting death, in order to save the rest of the population?

It is possible that a scenario could emerge in which Ellie’s death is seen as necessary in order to save the rest of the population. If her immunity is crucial to understanding the cordyceps infection and developing a cure, the ruling authorities or scientific community might believe that the only way to obtain this information is to sacrifice Ellie through dissection of her brain or other means.

Such a scenario would likely be a difficult and controversial decision, as it raises ethical questions about the value of one life versus the potential to save many others. It would also likely have a profound impact on the characters and the world of the story, as the decision to sacrifice Ellie would be a significant turning point in the narrative.

Ultimately, the outcome would depend on the specific details of the story and the motivations of the characters involved. While a sacrifice scenario is possible, it is not guaranteed and could be challenged or avoided altogether by the characters in the story.


My interaction with ChatGPT raised a number of ideas regarding both the movie and the TV show that I had not considered initially. The amount of agency and control over their individual destinies the characters exhibit and how their decisions could possibly affect the outcome of the scenarios was very intriguing to me. Both shows present similar End of the World viewpoints. However “The Last of Us”, perhaps because it seems more grounded in real-world (recent?) or plausible events, holds out a hope for the future that I was not expecting, especially from an adaptation of a video game. What do you think? Is there hope at the End of the World?

https://www.knockatthecabin.com

https://www.hbo.com/the-last-of-us

Images copyright their respective copyright holders, taken from their websites.

Seeing Double

We lived in several houses growing up in Reno. Until my parents divorced we lived near Wooster High School. Later after my Dad remarried, we lived in a small home off Peckham Lane in the Smithridge area. 

In the living room of both homes we had a fireplace and over the fireplace hung a painting. George Carter painted many Nevada scenes during his lifetime, some of which may have been inspired by Nevada magazine covers. The view of desert and mountains that we have was purchased from him in 1964 while Mom worked at Brundidge’s in downtown Reno. It now hangs in our guestroom and of all the paintings, photos, and memorabilia—this painting most reminds me of Nevada. The dark layering clouds over snow-covered mountains, mountain peaks catching the light, the scent of sagebrush in the dry air.

In my Dad’s home we had a different painting hanging over the mantle. Painted by my stepmother’s sister, Maxine Randall Peters, it depicts a red barn surrounded by gold-leafed trees in autumn, snuggled up against the foothills of Mount Rose. It’s a readily identifiable location in Washoe Valley. It appears Maxine had painted a lake or pond up close to the building in order to reflect the brilliant yellow trees and that gorgeous red color. 

The two paintings capture two very different views of Northern Nevada, one looking possibly towards the Sierra in the West, the other a view of the foothills from Washoe Valley, both areas I was familiar with growing up.

Though I now live in Virginia, my wife and I return often to visit family in Reno. I’ve joined a number of Reno and Nevada-interest Facebook groups, most of which feature photos of the amazing landscapes for which the state is known. Some of the sights are new to me (wild horses seem to be everywhere now, rarely seen when I was growing up there); other photos are of familiar areas such as Pyramid Lake, the Truckee River, or Lake Tahoe.

But I stopped immediately when I came across a familiar image on Facebook last month. Incredible! The red barn from my aunt’s painting, pictured in all the golden glory of fall, in a group of photos by an FB group member. Impossible! Maxine had created her  oil painting back in the 60s. The barn was old then, how could it still be standing?! I’ve framed the photo and it now hangs in my Nevada-themed guestroom. It’s a brighter version of the scene Maxine painted years ago; the cottonwood trees dominate the image and nearly obscure the barn at the center of the photo. The barn isn’t red like our painting; perhaps it never was, maybe that was just another embellishment of the artist. I like it.

While I was searching online for more photos by Lee Molof, I came across another painting by George Carter dated sometime during the early 1960s. And then another. A third and now a fourth.

All five images bear striking similarities: the pyramid-shaped mountain in the middle ground, mountains to the left of the image, sagebrush in the lower right foreground. All of them are overshadowed by immense cumulonimbus clouds. Of the four, I prefer the overall coloring in ours: the coral-tinged mountains are a little closer to the viewer; the arroyo or dirt road in the center has a slate grey that mimics the snow covered mountains in the distance. Orange flowers dot the foreground and place the image as perhaps early spring, snow hasn’t yet receded from the mountain peaks.

I’m curious to find the original location that Carter used as reference material. If it is indeed from a Nevada magazine I would like to get a copy of it, perhaps a nicely framed photo to go with our painting. If civilization and the expansion of Northern Nevada suburbs haven’t destroyed the view, I think it would be great to pair the photo and the painting in the same room. It’s a bit of Double Vision, a nod to the past as well as the present. I like it.


Just to be clear, I don’t own the four paintings in the collage above. All of them were found on online art auction sites. In most cases, Carter oil paintings sell in the mid $500-800 range. Mom says she paid $30 for ours and bought it directly from George Carter when he would come in to Brundidge’s for art supplies or to have paintings framed.

Second Chances

I know, I know. I said that we were downsizing. And if that means anything, it means decreasing what we own and definitely NOT buying more stuff.

But since I discovered online estate sales last year, I have definitely taken a turn for the worse.

Today I went through my invoices to see exactly what all I have been bidding on (and winning). I’ve lost out on any number of things by not bidding high enough to secure them as the timed-bidding ran out. But I’ve won quite a bit, some things of value; some things I think (or thought) I needed; some items I just thought would be fun to have.

A few things, after I’ve picked them up from the home where the estate sale was being held, turned out to be, shall we say, not quite what I had expected. To be sure, nothing online has been misrepresented and for all of the auctions we have followed, there has been an in-person preview period. Those I generally forego as I don’t want to drive the distance twice. But wheels have needed to be replaced. A Nikon camera I bought wasn’t a digital format, that one is on me. The deer-antler-handle carving set was a win.

Over the past year it looks like I have concentrated on indoor furnishings, vintage furniture or decor. But more recently I have looked for garden tools, garden furniture, cement planters or garden sculpture. There is a wide variety of just stuff available through online estate sales. The company we have been bidding through will list everything in your home, from the contents of the silverware drawer to everything found in an outdoor shed. And under the deck as well. And the linen closets.

I’ve come to realize that, while there are many good deals to be had (we just recently picked up an unused toaster oven), there are also things that have left me scratching my head and wondering. Why? Why did l bid on that? Hmm?

The savvy collector will seek out comparable items to determine the worth of an item. I found myself bidding on something when luckily I was outbid and thought, “Did I really want to spend that much for a used item?” and Heaven help you if you have bid more than what an item is worth new because you hadn’t done your homework. But I’ve also let a few things get away that I hadn’t set an appropriate upper limit to my bid. Bids generally increase by $2 but at some point that increment can jump up to $10 or more. And I have lost out on something by $2 simply because I had set my max bid too low.

Over the year I’ve bought several mahogany picture frames, an antique Lane cedar chest, an antique Victorian mahogany wash stand which I refinished; several tables; a couple of wingback chairs; a beautiful sleeper sofa which we ended up taking to the dump; binoculars; a handpainted floor lamp; a metal detector that needed a new set of batteries; concrete garden planters; iron garden table and chair set; garden carts and a wheelbarrow and more I’m sure.

Have your participated in any online estate sales? Or perhaps have been thinking that a sale (really it’s a silent auction format) would be a great way to downsize? I look around at all that we have and shudder when I think how little our stuff might actually be worth. On the other hand, I’m pretty excited to get a nice garden cart–in need of new wheels– for only $15. It’s all relative.

A few of the fun things I’ve purchased over the past year. The gorgeous Victorian mahogany frame is still waiting on a decision to paint it or leave it natural. And I have a couple of tables that are waiting on refinishing, other than that we are in a good place. But maybe it’s not quite the time to really downsize.

Hand Made

I was in 10th grade when I first started to make hand-lettered signs. Professionally that is; before that I had been your go-to guy for all types of posters and blackboard art in school. But it was in high school that my career, as it was at the time, really took off.

My journalism teacher at that time and her husband helped out at the local Little League baseball field. He may have been a coach though I don’t really recall much other than boxes of sporting equipment in their garage and station wagon. My job however, was hand lettering the many advertising signs that were mounted to the fence surrounding the playing field. 4ft x 8ft plywood signs, mostly painted white, hand lettered with your business name, perhaps a logo, and a phone number and an address. Occasionally we would put two businesses on one board and the text got a bit smaller, but overall it wasn’t a difficult job making four inch letters look legible from the outfield.

Signpainter

That skill helped me quite a bit when I took a job after college in San Diego. Working at Robert Keith Giant Inflatables, I was part of a team of artists who hand painted logos on twenty foot tall vinyl beer bottles and cans. (I wrote about that previously here.)

However most of my graphics career was spent in the screenprinting industry. The billboard posters I printed had a handshake relationship with old-school lettering in that the projected image of text was drawn by hand and then a stencil was cut by hand using an exacto blade. Those paper stencils were used to produce hundreds of identical prints, whether they were yard signs for elections or 30 ft billboards for casinos in my hometown of Reno. The screenprint produced a much cleaner, sharper image of text than my admittedly shaky brushwork ever could. 

All of which brings me to our recent visit to Tennessee and the opportunity to enjoy two vastly different exhibit experiences which showcased basically the same material. 

The Museum of Appalachia twenty miles north of Knoxville in Norris, TN is a wonderful collection of relocated early American frontier buildings, from one-room log cabins to sheds and barns filled with memorabilia. Several larger new structures are jam-packed with an overwhelming assortment of photographs, personal items, home goods and cottage industry crafts, guitars, banjos, dulcimers and small exhibits devoted to favorite sons such as SGT Alvin C. York (WW1). 

Much of the collection appears to be pre-industrial revolution items or shortly thereafter. But what captured my attention wasn’t the time period or the quality of craftsmanship displayed: it was the sheer quantity of materials they had on display! And nearly everything came with a simple hand-lettered caption label. So much stuff! All labeled! Beautiful, shaky, fading-to-grey black ink on sepia colored cardboard labels. Admittedly they were hard to read, but they looked like letters or postcards from a forgotten era.

The next day we toured the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in Townsend TN. A beautiful structure with engaging exhibits, the Center appears to be well funded. The exhibit casework is new and reflects our current design trend of color-coordinated thematic divisions. Essentially a book-on-the-wall exhibit experience, it is clean minimalist design. All the body text and object labels are printed (likely off a digital printer, those having superceded screenprinting technology) and there is a curated sense of purposeful arrangement to the items on display. The overall sense here is one of Story, what do these objects tell us about the past and the people who lived here.

The two locations are only 50 miles apart. They couldn’t be farther apart in their differing approaches to presenting and helping us to understand the past and how we are related to it. For all the years I spent in the museum exhibit design and production industry, I have a built in bias towards the clean uncluttered presentation style of the Great Smokies Visitor Center. 

But I have to say, those hand-lettered display signs and labels on all that stuff at the Museum of Appalachia really have me reminiscing. And who doesn’t like the thrill of discovering something tucked away, much like going through an old trunk or your Grandmother’s photo album, only to find pictures of…you?

Frame It!

This past year I became enamored? Infatuated? Engrossed? In online estate auctions. I know, it seems counter intuitive to be buying things we likely don’t need when our goal these past several years has been to declutter and downsize. But really, who can’t use another hall tree or hat rack, and maybe a beautiful Panama hat to go with it? But I digress. 

What I have found to be a lot of fun is bidding on vintage and antique furniture in need of some repair or refinishing. There might be an opportunity for resale at a later date, but that isn’t why I’ve been buying Victorian walnut washstands (original marble top!) or mahogany side tables. Or antique shaving mirrors.

Growing up, I remember Dad had a tool shop in our garage where he would occasionally turn out small projects. It was on his Shopsmith lathe that I first learned how to turn wood for candlesticks, and his table saw is what I used to make the frames for stretching canvas for my paintings during college.

For many years I was employed in the exhibit industry and the woodworkers who created the custom exhibits and cabinetry were always very supportive of my small “homey” projects. So I’m not unfamiliar with wood and the growing community of DIYers and refinishing/repurposing trends. 

Antique mahogany frame

But these Victorian frames that I’ve been buying have me a bit confused. What to do with a 22”x24” frame composed of three separate moldings, that framed a portrait of  someone long deceased? The two companion frames that I bought at the same time came from an estate sale in Culpeper. Other than cleaning, they are in great shape and all I need to do is find a more suitable image to place in each before they go on the wall.

But this one has been a challenge. I repaired some of the missing molding by taking an impression with DAX modeling clay of a matching section of frame, then glued on the new pieces. Rather than take the entire frame apart to “resquare” it, I left it as I had found it, somewhat warped at a jaunty angle, but showing the passage of time. The Victorians seem to have placed more emphasis on the size of the frame than what went in it. Very peculiar to our modern preference for pencil-thin frames and large scale artwork.

After doing what I could do refinish the frame and repair the missing moldings, I decided to paint it. I took design inspiration from the wildly over-the-top decor of The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs WVA. Nearly 80 years after Dorothy Draper redesigned the interiors of the resort, I’m amazed at the effect bold colors and large patterns can achieve. I cringe when I see things painted white (so many colors and you chose…white?) so I settled on a bright blue. It’s a statement piece, for sure. But I’m still at a bit of a crossroads; what to put in the frame? 

Upcycled

Upcycled, recycled, DIY makeover, finished, refinished, trash-to-treasure— call it what you will, the “don’t throw that away” movement is definitely here to stay. With the cost of new furniture, and shipping problems continuing to be an issue, it only makes sense to repurpose what you have rather than buying more. But what if what you have isn’t quite right or isn’t working for you anymore?

I’ve seen and read a crush of articles recently extolling the virtues of shopping the second hand market for furniture, or salvaging a piece from someone else’s trash before it becomes landfill; but most of those projects end up all looking alike. The paint-it-grey urban farmhouse style has a firm grip on today’s design world. Much like the all-beige world of the early 90s, trends can really take ahold of our consciousness.

I am aware that no one wants OUR stuff, especially the kids! And that includes our collectibles, knickknacks, souvenirs, and other space wasters and shelf hogs. However, we all want YOUR stuff if it is vintage, antique, or can be painted and made to look like new.

Many online sources have chronicled our obsession with old=new again. 

In an article from early in the pandemic (Oct 2020) Vox noted how people’s choices to buy used furniture created new opportunities for some, yet at the same time previewed hard times ahead for some retailers. It could be an early indicator of a market shift, or just a temporary reaction to supply shortages and high prices at a time when folks were reticent about going out. Time will tell. 

Online articles will tell you how to clean second hand furniture, how to detects pests (bedbugs in the sofa?), what not to buy second hand (mattresses, again…bedbugs), where to score great mid-century modern furniture (estate sales and auctions, especially in MCM neighborhoods such as Mantua in Fairfax), and of course there is Pinterest for how-to ideas once you have your new/old piece. 

Lately I have become a bit obsessed with online estate sales. Well, auctions, rather than sales, and that is an important point to remember. While you might rejoice over the initial low bids on a particular piece of furniture, the bidding can quickly ratchet up past your limit in the final hours of a sale. No one wants to get caught paying more for a piece than it’s worth!

On the other hand, I’ve bought a beautiful Victorian walnut washstand for $23; a mahogany sidetable for $10 (I kept the legs and threw away the damaged top); and a nifty dresser shaving mirror in mahogany for $40 which I will be refinishing soon. The mirror, along with a couple of very old picture frames, came out of the Hill mansion in Culpeper. Just getting the opportunity to walk through the mansion to pickup my treasures was worth the trip!

I’m having a lot of fun trying out a few new techniques. The two Victorian-era picture frames that I bought are in need of some repair. One of them is missing the cast plaster molding in a corner. I’ve cast a new corner piece from a mold I made out of DAS modeling clay. Fingers crossed that the finished project turns out!

The kids may not want our stuff, that’s true. But I’m still looking for projects to refinish!

A Wonderful Life

The holidays bring no end of opportunities for musical and dramatic presentations. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol seems to never run out of venues, whether performed at community theaters or touring companies. So it is also with The Nutcracker, or holiday sing-alongs to Hansel’s Messiah

If, like many families, you have your collection of DVDs, then by now you may have already watched White Christmas or A Christmas Story. Or you may be more partial to new favorites such as Elf; How the Grinch Stole Christmas; or Home Alone. The Hallmark Channel serves up an endless supply of 25 Days of Christmas movies to get us all into the spirit!

It’s a Wonderful Life premiered in December 1946. It was not a commercial success by today’s standards (initial box office release places it near $3.5 million) and doesn’t fall anywhere near the top 50 highest-grossing Christmas films. (Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch (2018), at $512 Million takes first place, followed by 1990’s Home Alone $496 million. https://screenrant.com/christmas-movies-highest-grossing-box-office-mojo/

Yet it has taken its place on many Christmas movie lists as one of the most-loved holiday movies. Due to an oversight by the copyright holder Republic Pictures, It’s A Wonderful Life came into the public domain in 1974 and was shown repeatedly on television for many years. For many of us “boomers” White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life are the definitive holiday movies.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play (full-length version)
It’s a Wonderful Life is based on the story, The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern and was adapted by Joe Landry in 1996. This past week we saw a wonderful performance of this charming holiday favorite by the Four County Players in Barboursville VA. The building is a beautiful historic school building from the 1930s filled with character. The stage of the auditorium of the Barboursville Community Center (formerly Barboursville High School) was transformed into the Manhattan radio station WBFR and side wings served as a “green room” during the play’s intermission.

The Players have been putting on a wide range of shows for over 40 years now. Looking through their website, musicals, comedy, and dramas abound and titles such as God of Carnage, The Laramie Project, and Chicago emphasize the wide variety and challenging pieces they have taken on.

It’s A Wonderful Life performed as a live radio play adds an extra depth to a story that has become very familiar over the years. The idea of watching actors, who are themselves portraying actors, who are telling a story set in the postwar 1940s makes this show both familiar and fresh. It’s as if we were being treated to a contemporary podcast, yet here the actions and expressions of the people on stage carry even more emotional weight than would a sound-only podcast.

Frank Kapra directed the movie, based on the 1943 short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, at the end of WWII. James Stewart had just gotten out of the Army Air Corps and the themes of faith and family, along with deep emotional trauma, surely resonated in his performance. It is a strange coincidence that this play takes the stage again 75 years after the movie’s premier, also at a time when the US has returned home from war.

Yet just as moving was the poigancy that Ken Wayne brought to his portrayal of the drama’s character Jake Laurents, voicing the play’s character of George Bailey. John Holdren’s portrayal of the radio show host was very impressive, switching from host to numerous characters seemingly at ease. Using only their stage scripts as props, or perhaps fussing with the fit of a garment, the cast brought multiple characters to life on stage. Very impressed by Sara Conklin and Katie Hutchins! A great delight was the onstage presence of two Foley artists producing an array of sound effects–from the sound of shoes crossing the floor; broken glass; wind effects; doors being slammed; to the swoooooshing sound of deep waters rushing under the bridge our main character finds himself standing upon.

I had expected the drama to be a bit more “staged,” the actors perhaps just sitting around their microphones in a sound booth. Director and scenic designer Kerry Moran has laid out a beautiful set with the actors front and center. The actors were on their feet at the microphones most of the time, true, but the camaraderie and playful banter exhibited by their onstage characters brought a great deal of additional life to the drama. The action moves along at a quite lively pace. Our director knows there is an audience watching these performances: subtle yet at times dramatic lighting effects coupled with musical backgrounds fill in what could have been a staid production. And those costumes! Welcome to the 1940s.

This was our first time attending a Four County Players’ performance; what a great introduction to theater in Central Virginia and a start to the holiday season.

George Bailey returns a changed man. “Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings. Love, Clarence.”

Book illustration by Scott McKowen from The Greatest Gift, published 1996 by Viking Penguin

Changed My Mind

First, an apology to all of my woodworking friends, craftsmen, and fabricators and finishers who create extraordinary pieces of furniture from walnut, mahogany, cherry and other woods. The rich gleam and subtle play of light accenting texture and grain  in your pieces are unmistakable.  The deep colors of walnut or an ebonized finish are striking. 

But I’m afraid, most older pieces of furniture (vintage, antique?) leave me wanting to grab my paint brushes and get started. Painting. Covering up those wood grains with a bright coat of gloss white enamel or lacquer, or maybe even a distressed crackle finish with a rubbed-in patina. 

Lately I’ve been partial to painting furniture with a whimsical collage of colors and patterns —think of Mackenzie-Childs, though with a more muted color palette than their hot pinks and spring greens or black and gold patterns.

Estate sale side table.

When I found an antique table available on a recent estate sale, I knew it would look great as a table base for one of my hand painted faux finish table tops.

A few years ago, Deb and I drove over to The Greebrier in WVA for lunch and to have a look around at their world-renowned interiors. The main rooms were especially colorful over the Christmas holiday and I remember how striking the decor seemed. Originally designed by Dorothy Draper and now maintained and refreshed by Carlton Varney, the bold use of color and over-sized patterned wallpaper really caught my eye. Not to everyone’s taste, I’m sure, but I loved those huge black and white checks, striped wallpaper, and painted tables. 

A settee in bold pattern, flanked by gloss black side tables.
Grey, blue, or citrine yellow for the table base?

It was in the spirit of the over-the-top Greenbrier decor that I expected to paint the legs for my blue marble table. Not black. The legs already looked black from aged varnish. Maybe bright white or a pewter gray to complement the greys and blues of the painted top. Or perhaps a vivid citrine yellow. But definitely color. 

While sanding through that almost-black finish, I discovered that the table base was red mahogany. Surprisingly I’m rather partial to mahogany. I’m not a big fan of the lighter finishes of woods such as ash or maple; definitely not a fan of the current gray-washed everything. But I love walnut and mahogany, especially with a satin finish or a hand rubbed look. 

So, my apologies to my woodworking friends for all the shade I’ve thrown your way over the years. This past week I bought a can of tung oil with my sandpaper. 

You can see the results below.