At the finish of the winter holidays, I’m hot to get into making Valentine themed art projects. Why do I return year after year to my heart-shaped world? In paper and wood, sugar and flour, felt and cloth, the universal heart motif calls me to create. You’d be forgiven for thinking I must be tired of the whole idea. Oddly or miraculously, I am not in the least done with it.
Years ago, I read that Stephen King said he writes about horror because that is what catches in the drain of his mind. That made sense to me. We are drawn to diverse things, not always consciously. Poets, artists, composers return time and again to the same themes. I believe a good portion of these artists would not be able to quite pinpoint why they are fascinated with these particular subjects.
My definition of valentine is probably broader than the norm. My fondness for bits of rusty metal, old sewing notions, the odd dried leaf does greatly expand the materials list. I’ve christened my home studio Magpie Studio in honor of both my mother Margaret and my love of the found object, be it odd trash to anyone else or some tiny, lovely shell that anyone would put in their pocket. I’ve happily received gifts of spiraled scrap metal shavings from the job site to old stamps and flattened bottle caps. All may find a home in some collage.
Many times, an object will spark a slew of ideas and a series will be started. This year, inspiration found me in the form of a cast iron heart-shaped skillet. It came with a packet of cookie mix, as purchasers were meant to bake a heart-shaped cookie in it. Not being interested in a preservative-laden big cookie, I was very interested in what else could be made in or presented on this adorable little pan.
With afternoon tea menus always in mind, my first thought was of crumpets. The pan could be heated in the oven, keeping just-toasted crumpets piping hot, ready for oodles of butter to catch in every hole. Yum! A list of a dozen other charming tea foods served in the new pan quickly assembled in my mind. Pastries, tea sandwiches, a tartlet, a quiche, scones, little cakes, and so many more. I would like them to be heart-shaped, of course, and just the right size to fit into the pan. Not surprisingly, I have several heart-shaped cookie and biscuit cutters in many sizes. With just a little shaping, one cutter became the perfect size. (The difference of the cutters is that biscuit cutters are deeper.)
Traditional foods can be cut into heart shapes, yes, but also since the cutter is metal, food can be baked right in the cutter, either in the cast iron skillet or on a baking sheet. Covered with parchment or ideally, a silicone baking mat, open bottom cutters turn into baking forms admirably. Metal cookie cutters are so inexpensive that investing in 6 or even a dozen won’t set you back much. The runniest mixture I used was the egg and cream quiche blend. This led me to the idea of lining the cutter with slices of deli ham, fitted like a crust, inside the cutter. There was some egg leakage but the heat of the oven put a stop to it quickly. The extra bits can be trimmed later with a sharp knife or clean scissors. Even the crustless cheesecake I baked in my heart-shaped cutter only leaked a tiny bit before setting up in the oven.
Clockwise from top left: little cast iron heart-shaped skillet and nesting cookie cutter, a similar pan in a Fancy Flours catalog (though I found mine at Grocery Outlet for $3.99,) a stack of tea sandwiches, deviled ham and smoked salmon fillings, a red bell pepper heart garnish, cut out with a small, very sharp cookie cutter
Since I was cooking and baking diverse kinds of food, I knew that I would be photographing on one background to unify the photos. Avoiding a hodgepodge look is definitely something I strive for in photos and in my art projects, in general. When assisting my baking partner, Suzi, when she taught cookie decorating classes, I noticed students tending to employ the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink method of decorating. While fun, this looks a bit like a hastily assembled yard sale to me. Sometimes, what you leave out is just as important as what you put in. “Limited palette” is a useful concept to borrow from art practice to apply to any kind of design or decorating. Its practical application in cookie decorating is achieved by presenting only two or three examples from which to work and giving students just the supplies to create those designs. Students of all ages tend to be happier with these attractive cookies.
Does that sound harsh and bossy? Does it stifle creativity? Is pleasing success better than pioneering failures? Answers: yes, maybe, sometimes? A creative practice is just that, a practice. A life-long practice for many people. When I present these finished photos, there is forty years of practice behind them: way, way too many uninteresting pieces, sloppily executed work, technical failures, work that has nothing to add, work that just isn’t compelling to me all have helped me zero in on what I want to make and how to achieve the results. These photos are contributed to by the various art instructors at Cabrillo College, inspiring art buddies, the example of my own grandfather’s practice, the shock of the new absorbed at art school, closely looking at the natural world season by season, intense professional baking, and a million other things remembered and forgotten.
The urge to create is built in to us humans. Allowing some space for creating into your life seems like a safe and sound bet. I love the trend of the makers and the bakers and the creative energy I see all over the internet and in my own hometown public murals. I think it’s good for us; take your vitamins, create stuff, see where it all leads you.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Clockwise from top left: