Posts Tagged ‘Back to Painting’

Is It Possible?

The limitations imposed by the coronavirus crisis have not been too hard on us. We live in the country and enjoy the garden, the sunshine and fresh air, the pets, the night sky, the river walk… What we are lacking is human contact. We hardly see our friends and family and when we do we can’t give them a hug and a kiss, a Spanish custom that we have taken to whole heartedly. The other custom that is one of life’s pillars in this part of Spain–Andalusia, in the south–is the tapas bar, our three-times-weekly multi-purpose feelgood experience.

It’s a magical mix of irresistable food in enticing quantities, much of it eaten with toothpick skewers. In the great tapas bars returning clients are treated like family. Our favorite one, in a nearby village and frequented by townspeople of all stripes, from campesinos to local gentry, whole families including babes in arms and grandparents, horse traders and sleek señoritos with beautiful women. When we arrive I’m welcomed with a kiss from Monica, the lovely Gypsy waitress, usually followed by a conspiratorial tip for insiders: “Today we have torta de quisquillas, crunchy little patties filled with tiny whole shrimp…” Or little plates of paella, or exquisitely fried fish, all wiggly fresh from the wholesale fish market in the port of Motril, less than an hour’s drive down to the Mediterranean coast.

A few little plates of those mini-delicacies washed down with a chilled dry white wine, or icy draught beer make the world an infinitely better place. My husband Mike likes to sit at the bar, where we have the opportunity to meet new people and learn new tricks from great bartenders, like leaving the last finger of wine in the bottom of the bottle so as not to tip the lees into your drink.

What triggers these festive, culinary, fraternal outings? Any pretext works: “I don’t feel like cooking.” “Neither do I.” “We’re out of olive oil.” “It’s Friday!” “I’m bored.” “Me, too.” “I’ve worked enough today.” “Me, too.” We have a big lemon tree that fruits during six months of the year, so we often take a basket of tree-ripened lemons as a gift for the house. That cements relationships, too.

Beans with Everything

So, suddenly deprived of all of this, what do you do? You have to be creative. As I think I’ve already told you in a previous post, I started making sourdough bread and pancakes. It took me about a month to perfect the process, and during the times my dough was rising I had time to dabble in cooking experiments. Our freezer is always full of ingredients for siege cooking–ground beef, pork loins and ribs, vegetables of all sorts, chickens for stews and stocks, frozen cod and prawns and life-saving leftovers, which just need reheating.

The main results of this fiddling with food preparation were two tendencies:

  • Quick, varied, tasty, tapas-like meals. The secret of these is homemade chicken stock, which enriches everything. We make a big vat of it about once a month and freeze it.
  • And hearty pots of stew. Mike calls them “peas porridge hot” as they tend to get reincarnated from day to day. The Spanish call this comida de cuchara, “spoon food,” and it has become our regular fare, frequently with no meat at all (we hardly miss it), but always with at least a couple of varieties of beans. Here’s how that happened: Mike was making his chili con carne one day and discovered we were out of pinto beans. So he used a mixture of red and butter beans. That was great and now he makes his chili with all three. It gains in taste and texture and is even better looking.

The Shock of Confinement

Once I was over the initial shock of the confinamiento it occurred to me that I had the time to work on projects that I had been putting off for years, such as the artist’s book of favorite recipes. María José, my assistant in the studio, reminds me of it from time to time. So a couple of weeks ago I finally got started. It’s going to be bi-lingual English and Spanish, illustrated with a limited edition of solar-plate prints, and include not just my own recipes but some others well loved by our kids and grandkids, including some traditional Spanish and English dishes and some from friends.

We’ve always made jams, chutneys and conserves but now, with more time, we make more. We have a few fruit trees and berry bushes in our garden so we’re not short of fruit.


One of our favorite bases for both sweet and savory preserves is quince, which looks like a cross between an apple and a pear, and has so much character that you can’t eat it raw. I never saw it in England and Mike says he never knew it in America, but it thrives here mainly for making the traditional quince jelly (carne de membrillo). We cook it sliced in sugar syrup to make a compota and chop it fine, add sugar–and sometimes fruit– for jam. To make chutney you just use less sugar and add chopped onions, vinegar and lots of spices. You might try this at home if you can find any quince.

My mini herb garden began with two tomato plants in a pot last summer, then expanded to more–herbs and vegetables planted in pots, discarded wooden boxes and old drawers–gives me unending satisfation. Right now, as I sit by the fire writing this, I hear autumn’s first rolling thunder and feel the joy of anticipating the rain on my little garden. There’s nothing like real rain, especially in our arid climate. We ate the tomatoes at the end of summer, a total of eight. In early fall I planted more herbs–coriander, basil and two varieties of thyme–and some winter plants–lettuce, radishes and two colors of kale. Now I’m preparing some boxes for early spring planting. The joy of a miniature garden is more concentrated, like the difference between a mastiff and a chihuahua, though we love them both.

I’m still reading a lot and enjoying it immensely. I started with Tolstoy, and War and Peace led me directly to books on military history–Napoleon Bonaparte and Julius Caesar–and also the other great Russian writers: Turgenev, Gogol, Pushkin, Chekhov… I haven’t gotten to Dostoyevski yet but I’m looking forward to him. Never before have I felt so strongly that reading is uplifting. And, inevitably, I’ve come to sorely regret the crass and unfair way Russians have been marginalized by Western society.

The Joy of Going to the Hospital

I went to Granada’s new hospital the other day for a minor operation and was reminded of the excellence and actual loveability of the Spanish health service, which starts just down the hill with our village doctor and nurse. It goes far beyond mere professionalism, though there’s no shortage of that. Everybody’s medical history resides on a network and can be accessed by any hospital, local clinic or pharmacy in Spain. But what makes the big difference from other efficient systems is the levels of kindness, patience and thoughtfulness you experience throughout. I think this has to do with the Spanish character. The surgery that attended me was 100% feminine. In the past couple of decades Spanish medicine has been richly endowed with brilliant women, perhaps, because they’re generally better students. So, I walked in and walked out–new–after just two hours, which included a general anesthetic. The only cost involved was paying the parking lot, which Mike thought was exorbitant at four euros.

While we’re on the subject of economy I want to mention barter. With so little cash around lately, we’re going back to barter whenever we can. The other day, Victor, the lad who supplies us with firewood, stopped by and asked if I could paint a portrait of his four-year-old daughter. I said sure, happy to. He asked how much I would charge him. “As you’ve got firewood and we need some, let’s do a swap.” He was delighted and brought us two splendid loads of almond wood nicely cut to fit in our stoves. I’ve done a lot of barter over the years–for clothes, furniture and rugs, dentistry, home improvements… I love the homespun elegance of it. No money changes hands.

Other Places We No Longer Go, Things We No Longer Do

For years we’ve gone to our spa pool at seven a.m. three times a week. The warm water and the high-pressure massage jets were so revivifying we called it “the fountain of youth.” The spa happened to be in La Zubia, a nearby village with a wonderful old-fashioned coffee shop, la Cafetería Mavi, By “old-fashioned” I mean they rise at 4:00 a.m. to bake the day’s bread. rolls and buns on site, and bring them out still warm at 8:00. We would go there for breakfast on our pool days. Mike says their napolitana de chocolate is the closest he’s ever come to a religious experience. We thought life was impossible without this Monday-Wednesday-Friday morning ritual. As you have already guessed, we don’t go there any more, not to the coffee shop and not to the spa.

Instead we do morning walks along the river path that runs beneath our house. It was widened and de-brushed last year, and extends nine kilometers, all the way to Granada. It’s not quite the spa and the Mavi on a chilly morning, but it’s still great and we take our little Diva, with us.

Nor do we drive down to the beach on summer mornings. We used to do a nice walk with two or three swims included, then return to the beach restaurant for a breakfast of coffee and toast with olive-oil, fresh tomato and mountain ham. We would be back home before noon. We felt so clever leaving home at 8:30 a.m. with no traffic and returning around 11:00–also no traffic.

We don’t go shopping except for groceries. Or to restaurants. And we no longer invite friends and family for paellas or barbecues. That is what hurts most. As for getting on a train or an airplane, or even a bus, forget about it.

Bottom line: Is our life worse? In some ways yes. We miss our family and friends sorely. In other ways it may actually be better, as I’ve tried to explain. What it is, beyond all else, is different. Can we cope with these differences? I read somewhere that learning to live with change keeps you young. The trickiest part is not knowing the duration of the emergency. We may be in for an even-longer haul. I shall do my best and keep you informed. I hope that you too are managing to cope, and that we will soon see the day when we can get together again.

Thanks to my husband Mike for his photographs.


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And They’re Not Over Yet

The past six months have reminded me of my two favorite Spanish sayings:

  • “No hay mal que por bien no venga.” Nothing bad ever happens that doesn’t bring something good along with it.
  • “Todos los días son días de aprender.” Every day is a day to learn something.

It was the end of February and I had just had a group in my studio of 18 art students from The American School in Switzerland (TASIS). I worked with two assistants, María José and Carmen (bottom right in the photo), which permitted us, in addition to teaching, to produce a volume of work, enough to mount a show when the students got back home. It was a print production experience and it worked wonderfully well. Everybody was delighted with their prints and I was ready for a rest.

This TASIS class was the largest group I ever had in my studio. In fact, some of them worked in the Gallinero on the long workbench and outside on the terrace. Martyn Duke, the art teacher (far left, glasses), and Frank Long, the photography teacher (far right, top), two great people to work with, walked the students from the hotel over to my studio every morning. Afterwards a great grandfather sitting on a bench under a big plane tree in the village plaza said it was like the old days when shepherds would herd their sheep and goats through the middle of town on their way upriver to the mountains.

It Was a Long Rest

I didn’t realize then that we were in for a six-month–and counting–rest, as the coronavirus lockdown started shortly afterwards. Life changed radically. No more escapadas to our favorite fried-fish-and-chilled-white-wine bars. No more visits to and from friends and family. No more students. What day is it? What is the meaning of life, anyway? Are we going to get out of this alive?

Essentially I think the most important tool for dealing with dramatically unexpected circumstances is creativity. I’m always saying that creativity is not just about modeling clay or putting paint on canvas. It’s about everything we do in life. It’s our most important resource, especially in tricky times.

How to start? First of all, reading. Mike bought me an ereader for Christmas and downloaded tons of quality books. I started with Tolstoy–what a revelation–Mark Twain, Dickens, biographies of Caesar and Bonaparte, among other greats. (Conclusion: Nothing has changed.) Then cooking, first spending a month nurturing sourdough bread and pancakes (Mike says sourdough is an extraterrestre.) We’ve almost eliminated meat from our diet, replacing it with dozens of variations on different kinds of beans. Then cakes and baked apples. Oh, I almost forgot the big homemade jam selection. Our son has a fruit orchard. That helps. It’s creativity you can spread on pancakes.

As it turned out, we were lucky. We weren’t totally locked down, The regulation had a loophole for people to walk their dogs, so Diva saved our health and sanity. We would take her for walks along the old Sierra Nevada tram line or the river walk almost every day.

Another bright side: They say adapting to change keeps you young. So, when the initial shock began to wear off I decided to go back to painting. Painting was my first love, but I hadn’t had much time for it since the late 70s when I took up printmaking. Now the time was right. I even had oodles of paint and canvases I’d been buying over the years for a future when I could paint again.

Sometimes Mike Would Take a Camera

What’s Next?

Next is to keep on coping. To continue dealing with changes, surprises, alarms, disappointments, simple pleasures, polishing one’s sense of humor. If adapting to change makes you young we’ll be 10 years old before this is over. And that’s a good thing, as President Trump says Covid-19 doesn’t kill anybody… except old people.


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