PLACES (of the earth & mind)

Art not for commerce


Yesterday, I turned in the final draft of my LL.M. thesis. I returned home not so much relieved (after all, I still have to defend the thing) but just emotionally spent. Why? Well, there's a whole vortex of issues that go into that 103-page, heavily researched pile of massacred trees. And I'm not talking about the comparative analysis of California vs. EU Initiatiave systems (yawn.) I'm talking about the personal reasosn why I did an LL.M. at all, and what that decision has to do with the drawing above.

I could go on for days about my self-diagnosed psychologocal issues and why I did that LL.M., which I will not bore you with here. Let's talk about the drawing instead.

I think creative people need to create to live. I turn into a lump of gray goo when I'm not creating. When I got home from turning in the thesis, I sat like a zombie in my livingroom for a few minutes before telling John "I need to do something visual. Now." Blurry-eyed from too many small-fonted footnotes, I located my box of Prisma colors, which hadn't been used in over 10 years.

So, I have like, over a jillion beads hanging all over the walls of my office, because my chosen "creative outlet" for the last 10 years has been jewelry. But jewelry has always been associated with Jib & Genoa, my jewelry company. I can literally say I sold the first piece of jewerly I ever made. So why is that a problem, you ask? 

Venture back with me bit further. My father and mother have always been entreprenuers. I'm not certain when I first heard someone remark about a piece of art I'd made: "That's really good Jenny, you could sell that," but I know I was pretty young. I don't think my mother was really pushing the capitalist agenda, but I do remember her starting a line of hand-painted porcelain in her shop with a design I'd created at, what, 4? 5 years old? Talk about a confidence builder! Your stuff is good enough that it gets its own little shelf in the shop. Where all the adults can see it.

Here my mother was, pouring her creativity into her porcelain shop and successfully making a living from it. She took pride in every piece she made, and had sincere appreciation everytime someone complimented her work. And here I got to see a little collection of my design (or whatever it could have possibly been, at that age, probably very much guided by her hand). Someone buying your design was the ultimate compliment! So yeah, I got that message before I could tie my shoes: good art sells.

When I started taking metalsmithing at UCSD, my very first piece was this very large, dangerous looking metal tree. I almost cut several apendages off making that tree. I did not even know how to solder jump rings onto it from which to attach a necklace chain. So what did I do when the tree was completed? Did learn everything there was to learn about metalsmithing? Did I study the masters? Did I redo it and redo it until it was perfect? Nope, I took that tree home, built a website around it, and said, yup, I think I'm going to make a jewelry company out of this. And I did. 10 years later that crazy tree is still in production and being copied all over Etsy (to the ire of my Intellectual Property lawyer). So yes, tree=success story.

And yet when I desperately need a creative fix, my jewelry supplies lie dormant. The first thing I rush to when in dire need of visual stimulation: my box of prisma colors. I needed to make something that I didn't stand back from and immediately calculate the wholesale value of. I needed to make art for the sake of art. When you make art for commerce, you are not the only one in that studio. You are surrounded by buyers, retailers, customers, critics, competitors, magazine editors. They are hovering over your bench, smirking and offering opinions, usualy negative. They are guiding your brush strokes, manipulating your color choice. Reigning in your creative expirimentation until it fits snuggly within in the bounds of "Yes, I'd pay money for that."

Making money from art was always the ultimate goal. But in a strange way, having someone pay you for your art turns that art into a widget. How many widgets can I churn out? Where will this widget fit on the market? What's a good price point for this widget? Commerce robbed the fun from jewelry. The compliments and orders give you a high, but the lack of compliments and orders can get into your wiring and deplete you of your true vision.

At any rate, as I crafted the portrait, knowing I was creating it for no one but myself, I happily let the legalese drain from my brain. I could practically feel my heart flutter up out of my chest. It is the first thing I've drawn in over 10 years. And frankly, I don't care what anyone thinks of it. 


Amsterdam: Drunken Bakers and Brown Cafes

I never thought I'd want to go to Amsterdam. It conjured up images of drunken British stag parties, the Red Light District, live window displays of prostitutes, and a contact high from billowing smoke. This did not appeal to me. Occasionally I'd stumble across a Pinterest board of adorably mismatched houses reflected in a canal that resembled a cross between San Francisco and Venice. Add in a few thousand bicycles parked along the quai and I was even more intrigued.

But...Amsterdam? Why waste a holiday visiting Amsterdam when you can go to Paris! Berlin! Rome! Venice! Paris! Barcelona! Paris!


Amsterdam blew me away with its cuteness. Fixie-riding, white-trim gabled, cheese-sampling cuteness. I was about 12 hours in when I started searching the Real Estate listings and picking out colors for my cruiser.

First of all, I prepared myself by reading Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City and I recommend it to all who travel there. Some gems that I took from the book:




1. Amsterdam is built on man-made semi-circle concentric ring of land and canals--it's natural resting place is about 6 meters under water. The Dutch have a saying, "God made the Earth, but the Dutch made Holland." Under the palace, an entire forest of logs have been driven into the ground. Submerged logs! The result is that all of these houses are crooked to the naked eye, leaning forwards and backwards and side to side. Add that to the adorable gingerbread likeness of their facades and the entire city looks as if it had been constructed by a drunken baker. 

2. The Dutch have a word "Gedogen" which means "illegal but officially tolerated." Obviously today, this makes us think of drugs and prostitution, but it has its roots in the 16th Century when the rest of Europe was slicing and dicing people for their preferred variation of Christianity, the Amsterdam city fathers opted not to punish the Calvinists (as was ordered under the decrees of the Holy Roman Emperor), but instead gave the Calvinists permission to hold Church services, stating "yes this is illegal, but we will allow it." I think we can all agree with that sentiment.

So has this "Gedogen" run amok? Is the city a cesspool of sin? Hardly. Yes, the sweet smell of marijuana does waft across your nose occasionally as you walk the canals. And yes, we did see live window displays of ladies of the night.  More off putting were the men walking through the red light district gawking at them. On our one pass through the district, I actually felt kind of gross for being one of those gawkers. But the "coffee shops" (where you buy the weed) were dispersed throughout the city, and hardly offensive. As clean and accommodating as the pubs.

Oh and the pubs! So quaint and welcoming. Especially for a pack of seven Americans. The purpose of this trip was to meet up with some of our LA friends from years ago...Sarah, Jos, Jonathan, Miriam and Tyler.  It was so great to slip right back into the banter and ridiculousness that usually ensues when we are around them.

So here's the quick and dirty list of recommendations:

Brown Pubs: (so named for their tobacco stained ceilings): Cafe t'Smalle was excellent, though pretty much every place that gave us a table for seven won my heart. The Dutch pubs are pleasantly smoke free (unlike in Prague) and are pretty much above ground (in contrast to Prague where many are in caves).

Cheese Tasting: Sooooo worth the 15 euro or a Windmill Pass, just for the amount of cheese you get, but also the instruction was really helpful. The cheese was divine and the wine was copious: Raypenaer Cheese Room. I mean, no, really. The cheese was beyond. My favorite was the chèvre gris.

Museums: I preferred the Van Gogh to the Rijksmuseum, if only because the latter was newly opened after ten years of renovations and the crowd was EPIC and the navigation inside was actually quite confusing. The only disappointment was that neither Starry Night, nor Starry Night over the Rhone were in the collection at Van Gogh.

Good luck getting up close and personal with a Rembrant at the Rijksmuseum. This is why I've always avoided the Louvre.

Real Living: (Well, real living for the insanely rich) at the Museum Willet-Holthuysen. You can tour this 19th Century home, which has been kept in its original state, and witness the Ladies' Salon, Ballroom, Garden Room, Collector's room, and more. My preference would have been sipping Geniver with the boys in the Club Room, plush with blue-velvet wall paper.

I'm guessing most of the pads in Amsterdam are a lot smaller. Lower ceilings, crooked floors, etc. I kind of like the idea of 'nook' living though. Fitting yourself into your surroundings, rather than the "make my house fit all my crap" mentality.  I will say that when I got home I did appreciate my Prague high ceilings. 

Retail envy: If Amsterdam has one thing on Prague, it's the deliciously designed shops that line it's canals at street level. Curiosity shops, clothing, chocolate, leather goods.  Every window bedecked in beautiful fonts, and curated displays. It made me want to go brick and mortar. the Otherist was a melange of wonders.

Chocolate "tools"! The Dutch are so witty.

But I have to say my favorite thing to do was walk around the canals, photographing the crooked gingerbread houses peering into people's homes.

You can see right into their lit windows at night, even at street level, as if watching a live work of art. We observed women arguing, old men reading, children coloring, people cooking, drawing, typing. We had the good fortune of visiting at the Christmas holiday, so most of the homes had beautiful holiday decorations. As described in the above mentioned book on Amsterdam: 

We cycle past street-level apartments, some of which follow a Dutch tradition that I like to think has to do with an ingrained commitment to openness, feature a central uncurtained windows that puts the living room on public display, as if the family who lives there thinks its life worthy of a museum.

Already picking out my ride.



No longer a tourist

Image from here.

You know you're a local when you intentionally avoid Old Town Square in December because of the asses-to-elbows demonstration of the holiday spirit that reigns from Mid-November until January. Eleven months a year, the square is breathtaking in a way Walt Disney could only imitate (oh wait, he did!) Throw in a church that looks like a castle, a 600-year old clock, a statute of a Catholic reformer who was burned at the stake, and it’s enough to draw even the staunchest Francophilic American 1000km east of Gaul.*

But wait, there's more. Add in 40+ food stands, hot wine, holiday tzocth up the ying, a massive Christmas tree, a cocktail tent, a petting zoo, and what appears to be the very source of all Trdlnik (Central European donuts) and you have a Christmas Orgy that would make any child's head explode.

Speaking of orgies, I challenge any American mall to a Christmas-Capitalism-Death-Match with Prague’s Palladium. Yours truly procrastinated long enough that I had no choice but to attempt to find my husband a gift there on the Friday before Christmas. Never again. He will get coal, and I'm sure I will be able to conjure up a reason why. Humbug.

Lest my readers be scared off a Prague visit because of the above nonsense** I will move on to the more touching moments of my 2nd Czech Christmas season.

1. Indoor BBQ's. I don't care what you do in North Carolina and I could give a hoot about Texas--California is BBQ country. Mostly veggie kabobs for this girl, but I like the smell of a grill as much as anyone in cowboy boots. Preferebly with a healthy whiff of Pacific Ocean air. Legend has it that my grandfather used to marinate his steaks in lighter fluid. I might point out that he retired in Texas. But I digress. BBQ's are as Californian as surfing on Christmas, and I haven't been to one since I left. Until last Thursday, at the end of the year office party at a tech company where I teach. It was too cold, and lets face it, waaay to inconvenient to cook outside, so they just rigged up a BBQ in the conference room, and there was smoky meat product for all. Said company shall remain nameless.

2. They eat fish here for Xmas instead of legged creatures. Carp, to be precise. Sounds great, except they expect me to buy one out of a tub on the corner, take it home to my bathtub and club it with a skillet.  I'm not kidding. They told me I must do this or I will never be a real Czech woman.

3. There is no Santa Claus in the CZ. What a ridiculous notion, I mean, how juvenile can you Americans get? A Bishop from Turkey who flies around the globe bringing already wealthy kids even more junk they don't need? Here, it's baby Jesus or "Ježíšek" who delivers presents to children. Way to mix religion and Capitalism, Czechs. At least we have the decency to keep Jesus out of the Malls in America. (Oh wait, no we don't.)


*Even ma Mère made it to Prague this summer!

**Speaking here to my only verifiable reader, Uncle Jeff, who I’ve most certainly scared off of Prague, as I’ve just described what I believe to be his worst nightmare.


European Appliances

This is my European refridgerator.


It reminds me of something my father would have had in the pool house for beer. That and the metal clothes rack are the only pieces of furniture that came in this apartment when I moved in.  We since have purchased a washing machine (they don't do dryers here), but for some reason, have gone frugal on the fridge.

One reason is that eating out is our luxury. I'm embarrassed to say that we eat out about 4 times a week. When we are busy, that number rises to 5-6. Dining out is incredibly cheap here, and there are an endless array of eating establishments. I think about our lives in Spokane and how my dinner preparations began at 3pm. I would walk to Huckleberry's Market with a list of obscure ingredients (Galangal ginger! Tempeh! Rice wine vinegar! Sunchokes!) that probably cost much more than dining out at Spokane's finenst. I'd set up the ingredients and appliances (the counter space!) put on a good movie on the lap top, and set to work. By the time John got home from work (kisses at the door like a good TV wife) the pots and pans would be clean, dinner ready to be served. It was eaten in an exhausted 20 minutes on the living room table, second helpings, always welcome, an additional 5 minutes. John Stewart, Colbert, the Office, and then bed. It seems so rote now, but I really did enjoy the ritual.

Now we eat at restaurants, take longer to enjoy conversation. We've started to cook a little more. Like this roast chicken, or this to-die for mushroom soup. I'm not gonna lie, there are quite a few frozen pizza nights here in the Preston-Toman household. But when we do get up to cooking, it's a mutual effort, John often taking the lead. It's an abrupt turn-around.

I keep saying that on some occaision, some milestone, we'll upgrade to a bigger fridge. One where I don't have to get on my knees to find the mustard. But this one seems to be fine for now. Besides, it's summer. No one eats at home in Prague during the summer.


The beginnings of Spring

Today, I went outside for the first time in five months without my thigh-length, fur-trimmed down parka.  55 Degrees, sunny, beautiful. There are buds on the trees, boats on the river. With a little luck, I'll be down to a t-shirt in no time.

On the other side of the river, I followed a labrynth of "WC" signs into a walled park, around a bush, and walked smack into a muster of peacocks and peahens.