Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Things that make me happy #389 and 390

When life imitates comic books: yesterday I was awoken in the morning by the sound of two squirrels beating the tar out of each other on the ridge of the living room roof (which is rather steeply canted, I should state).  I got to the window in time to see the two squirrels wrapped together in a little squirrel ball, biting, scratching, and lashing away at each other with their tails, go rolling down the roof, off the eaves and smacking on the ground below, where they continued to beat the tar out of each other.  All I could think was "Calvin and Hobbes".

Driving home on a warm night with the sunroof and the windows open, playing the soundtrack to "the Commitments"... and singing along, of course!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

And Now For Something Completely Different

The last few weeks have been decidedly Metals-centric (and there will be one last post with the pictures of the remaining pieces, later this week) But I haven’t totally neglected clay- I’ve just neglected to bring the camera with me to the pottery!  So...

Two weeks ago:

Tumblers galore!  With a little less than two hours left on Friday I decided to try throwing some smaller, and slightly differently balanced, versions of those black slip/shino tumblers from last month (that would be the 2nd and 3rd boards in from the right).  When I threw this batch I weighed out all the clay equally, but eyeballed the rest...while I was cleaning up, Michael said “you should really try throwing thirty or forty consecutively, and not just weigh them, but measure bottom thickness, opening diameter, etc. for each one, and get a feel for the rhythm of working for a long time on the same form.”  Well, come Saturday I wedged up 36 balls of clay (our boards hold nine cups) and got down to work.  Not totally continuous (break for lunch and frequent pauses to help an open studio attendee) but I did definitely get the experience: the first couple boards were fun, the third was a little harder, especially towards the end...after which I had to stop and do some yoga to stretch my back out...and that last board was something that I had to force myself to do.  All this showed in the cups, too: the first were a little stockier, they peaked in evenness and grace of form from the second board to three-quarters of the way through the third...and that last board looks belabored- the individual cups are good, but there’s less continuity between them.  But...54 cups in a total of 6 hours of actual throwing time is pretty darn good- now I just have to do all the slip work on them!

Last weekend:

Saturday:  Weight and size success record- I’ve centered 25 lbs before, but never have actually produced anything successful that weight, and never anything of this size: this baby's 20 lbs, 20 inches in diameter.  Let me just say right here that I LOVE my heat gun (for those of you who weren’t already aware): after bringing up the walls on this charmer I dried it some, did one pass with a rib to bring it out, dried it more, ribbed it again, dried, ribbed, dried, ribbed, cont’d ad infinitum, never doing more than one pass between dryings...let me just say here that this was after a Friday in which I toasted several of these 20lb stinkers due to being overly impatient and trying to go too far too fast too wet, and having left the studio feeling like wet spaghetti.  Title this one “Learning From Past Mistakes”.  Needless to say this one is going to be babied through a very, very slow drying!

Note from the next day... Trimmed that big bowl beautifully, nice and even and balanced...picked it up and thought "this is so lovely and light too"...and that instant had it fold in half and fall on the floor!  Sigh, title the next one "Really Learning From Past Mistakes Now".

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

(Insert Large Sigh Here)

I could go grandiose and say “an era has ended”, but one really has: Robert Laible is now retiring from teaching after 21 years as the night metals instructor at Parkland.  For those of us privileged to have taken his classes they have been an institution, for Robert’s knowledge and gift for explaining things, and for the atmosphere of comraderie that he has created and encouraged.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, the man is an extremely gifted metalsmith and jeweler, and a stone-setting genius, but more than that he’s a brilliant teacher.  In all the classes I’ve taken in various places I’ve never seen such total respect and affection for an instructor from all their students: Robert’s class may have seemed like near chaos at times, but the trust and respect we all have for him created order- and even when several people are (were) simultaneously yelling “Rooooberrrrt!!!!”, he always got to everyone, and made you feel that you had his undivided attention while you had him.  Even when it was late and tempers were fraying, he still kept the mood upbeat and fun (The 80’ British Gold as a soundtrack helped...not so much the B-52’s- I really didn’t need the lyrics to “Love Shack” permanently imprinted on my brain...none of us did.), though as any of his students would attest, his favorite bon mot “are you done yet”, perfectly timed for moments of supreme frustration, has frequently made even the most pacifist students want to slug him.  He’s gone far, far beyond what your average instructor would do just on time alone: even though the listed hours for the class were always 7:00 – 9:45pm, Mondays and Wednesdays, in actuality they were 4:30 – 10:30 on Mondays and 5:30 – 10:30 on Wednesdays, but also on so many occasions he (and his wife Denise) have juggled their home and work schedules to let students get that one last casting in, to come in really early to allow extra time to finish that last piece for the student show, and (back in the day before Parkland Security cracked down on it) allowed students to stay and work clear through the night (that would be you, John). 

But also one of the things that I value most is his emphasis on the importance of thoroughness and attention to detail: to learn how to do a technique / make something manually the “hard” way before using power tools, or ordering a component, etc, not just to allow greater control, but also to give an appreciation for and understanding of process and craftsmanship...and the insistence on doing things precisely right -down to that last .25mm- yet also knowing when to step back and realize that humans aren’t machines!

Oh yes, and he can spot firescale at 50 paces, with his back turned, in the dark.  (And probably with his eyes closed too.)

Now for the party...

For a retirement gift for Robert, my benchmate and friend Tedra Ashley, a bookbinder by trade, and I, organized and made this little class gift for Robert:

Photos: Tedra Ashley

The box and hammer rest is Tedra’s work (check out her other goodies at, the book is mine (putting that day job in book conservation to use).  The book contains notes of appreciation and thanks from current and former students, and the hammer is a lovely little toy that we know he’ll use.

Now one of our metals finals would never be complete without the obligatory bench load of sugary sweet and deadly chocolatey rich desserts, and this semester was no exception.  A few selections include: John’s Strawberry Crisp, Tedra’s Chocolate Chili Rum Soufflé, Hanna and Denise’s (Robert’s daughter and wife) Cherry Pie, plus the usual assortment of cookies and assorted other sweet stuff.  Erin should be commended for being a voice of sanity, and contributing Cheesy Potatoes, and ham and cheese sandwiches to cut the sugar.  My own contribution was this:

Raspberry White Chocolate Cheesecake


1 cup crushed Digestive Biscuits (Carr’s Whole Wheat Biscuits would be an acceptable substitute.)

3 tbs Sugar

3 tbs melted Butter

Mix together the crumbs and the sugar, then mix in the melted butter and blend well.  Cut an 9” circle of baking parchment and place in the bottom of an 9” springform pan (this allows for easy removal later), then evenly press the crumb mixture in on top of the parchment.


3 8oz packages of Cream Cheese, softened

¾ cup Sugar

8oz White Chocolate, melted

3 Eggs

Cream together the cream cheese and the sugar until well blended, then beat in the chocolate a spoonful at a time (now taste it- good, eh?) then beat in the eggs.  Pour over the crust and bake at 325° F for 55 minutes, until almost set at the center. Allow to cool.


          ¾ cup Raspberries

1/3 cup Sugar

1 tbs Flour

Simmer the fruit and sugar, stirring frequently, until the berries have disintegrated.  Slowly add the flour to the berries, and continue simmering, stirring constantly, until it thickens.  Set aside to cool, just until lukewarm.


Melted White Chocolate


To make the outer border, dip the base of each raspberry in melted chocolate before placing on the cake.  Once all the berries are positioned, allow the chocolate to harden for a few minutes.  Once the chocolate has hardened, spoon on the raspberry topping and carefully spread to cover.  The chocolate leaves are made by piping melted chocolate onto baking parchment that is wrapped around a cooler ice pack, and then once set (almost instant) popping them off with a butter knife to position on the cake.

Refrigerate before serving.

Oh.  My.  Goodness.

Robert, we’ll miss you on Monday and Wednesday nights...but you won’t have a chance to miss us at the rate we’ll be lurking around your shop.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Things that make me happy #388

Recently seen on a garbage truck in town: a very well crafted hood ornament in the shape of a seated pig with wings, spray painted to look like chrome.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Metals...No, Wax, and Finally Some Food

I finally finished the wax for that 3-Magnolia pin/pendant commission, and here’s a process picture I took just before attaching the sprues and investing it in plaster for casting.

One of the perks of making things is that they frequently look just as interesting while in process as they do when they’re finished.  On this type of project for instance, the sculpted pink sheet wax has an ethereal semi-transparent quality through which you can see the layers of petals overlap, and then later on, just after I’ve cast it in silver, cleaned, annealed and then quenched it, the petals will be flushed with the dark rose pink glass of the flux that I painted on before annealing (to prevent firescale).  Just as a note, this is also one of the many reasons I like Clary Illian’s A Potter’s Workbook- because nearly all of the photo illustrations are of greenware, thus removing the distraction of glaze and leaving you with the form itself.

And now for some food, as it has occurred to me that I’ve rather neglected the 350° end of things...though neither of these dishes are baked.  If you want more foodie fun, (plus postcards of life as a grad student in England), check out my friend Jo Zalea’s blog Not an Everyday Circumstance.

I’m not sure quite what to call this dish, I suppose it is a variant of chicken fricassee, by technique, but what I loosely based it on was the “Cornish Hens Shoemaker-Style” from the Silver Palate New Basics Cookbook that McKenzie Smith made while I was in Florida last month.

In a large frying pan, sauté in 1 tbs. butter:

2 cloves Garlic, minced
1 med. Yellow Onion, ¼ inch dice
8 oz Mushrooms, diced
2 med. Carrots, sliced
2 tsp dried Marjoram
pinch of Cinnamon
pinch of powdered Savory
½ tsp dried Thyme

Remove the veggies from the pan when the carrots are just starting to soften, and set aside. 

Dice 1 lb Chicken Breast into 1-inch cubes, and toss in ½ cup flour, then brown in the frying pan with 1 tbs butter.

Once the chicken pieces are browned on all sides, return the veggies to the pot and add 1 to 1 ¼ cups of Chardonnay.  Simmer, covered, over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the carrots are tender (about 8 – 10 minutes).  Serves 3-4

This would be really good with steamed asparagus...  Which leads me into the next recipe, not to be served at the same meal, for reasons which will soon become apparent:

Heart-Attack-In-A-Bowl Cream of Asparagus Soup

I make this recipe once or twice a year, only in peak asparagus season.  Whether the heart attack comes only from how good the soup is, or the calories from fat involved is debatable, and would depend on one’s constitution and genetics.  The seriously sinful version can be made by using heavy cream instead of half and half.

1 ½ lbs Asparagus
1 pint Half & Half (or Heavy Cream)
1-2 tbs unsalted Butter
Salt to taste

Wash the asparagus, remove and discard the bottom inch or so if they’re store bought and not from your garden, then snap off the tips and set them aside.  Snap the stalks into 1-inch pieces and put them in a saucepan with just enough water to cover, and simmer, covered, until tender.  Remove the stalks from the pan when done, and add the tips to the pot to simmer, also until tender.  While the tips are simmering, purée the stalks with the half & half or cream, and set aside.  Once the tips are done, remove them from the cooking water and set aside.  Melt the butter into the cooking water, then whisk in the asparagus purée.  Then chop up the reserved tips and add them as well.  Continue lightly whisking the soup over low heat until just heated through, then add salt to taste, if you wish, and serve.  This soup is best accompanied by slices of a good crusty baguette, from Mirabelle if you’re in C-U, and maybe a nice brie or camembert with a light, dry, white wine.  Serves 2-3