I (Pretzel) Heart Independence.

That’s right, those are hand-drawn pretzel hearts. So this is what I choose to do with my new-found freedom? Perhaps not the seminal, groundbreaking work one might anticipate from a newly liberated creative soul. And yet, it feels really good. To have the space and time to do what I need to do, what feels right, what feels like a gift. One week into this new life as a self-directed artist, and already I have so much to reflect on and to be grateful for.

In the last week, I have become intensely aware of the changes in my mood. They show in my work and my desire to make work and even what I feel like making. Here’s what I’ve seen: it’s a storm in there. Sometimes I’m all giddy and happy and free-feeling. I have a million ideas and everything sounds fun and painting is just the best idea ever. Other times everything is scary and nothing I make is truly good, and I can’t imagine what it’s all going towards or that I will ever get there.

I am learning to let that moment bring me back. When I hear myself thinking, “I will never get there,” a little noise like the rewind sound on a VCR (anyone remember those?) goes off in my head, and I pause, just long enough to remember that there is no “there.” The future, success, what good, or bad, or nothing may come of my art, exists only in my head. So why let it torment me? I’m working on taking those moments of panic and, instead of freaking out, asking myself, “What do I want to do now? Now.”

Sometimes it is free-drawing; sometimes it’s painting; sometimes it’s drinking a hot cup of tea and chilling on the couch. And sometimes it’s baking a bunch of pretzel hearts and making doodles of them. And then maybe playing in Photoshop to faux-watercolor them in. Just because I can.

That’s the brilliance of independence. I dunno when I’m gonna be self-sufficient. I don’t know if being a creative person will ever feel less uncertain. But I have the ability to listen to myself and take action, whatever the action that feels right may be. I also don’t know exactly what the greater purpose of pretzel hearts is, but they picked me up on a down afternoon, and perhaps they can do the same for you. Either way, they are both tasty and adorable, which is a good start to being useful in my book.

Mini Peanut Butter Chocolate-Dipped Pretzel Hearts

Makes roughly 8 dozen one-inch hearts. If you want to minimize time-spent cookie cutter-ing and dipping, I highly support anyone who opts to create two- or even three-inch pretzel hearts, though you will have to adjust bake time accordingly.

For pretzels:

1/2 cup + 2 tablepoons water

1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1 teaspoon instant yeast

1 tablespoon vegetable oil + more for bowl

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt +oodles for sprinkling

2 cups all-purpose flour

For soda bath:

2 tablespoons baking soda

3 cups warm water

For egg wash:

1 large egg

1 tablespoon water

For chocolate coating:

1 1/4 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

3 tablespoons peanut butter

Sift together the flour and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine all the other ingredients. Add in the flour/salt mixture. Using the dough hook attachment, mix on low until the dough comes together, about three minutes. Knead on medium-high for another three-to-five minutes until the dough is smooth. Place in an oiled bowl, and set to rise in a warm location for one hour, or until a finger poked into the dough ball leaves an imprint that does not rise back up.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Note: My oven runs slightly hot, so you may want to test one pan of pretzels and then turn the heat up to 400 degrees.

Cut the dough into two sections. Pat one section relatively flat, then roll it out to one-sixteenth of an inch thick. Using a cookie cutter, cut out hearts.

Whisk the baking soda together with the warm water to dissolve it. Submerge each heart completely in the solution, pat dry on a paper towel and  place on a prepared baking sheet. Once all the hearts are panned up, whisk together the single egg and water to make egg wash. Using a pastry brush, egg wash each heart. Sprinkle them generously with coarse salt, and bake for 12-15 minutes until deep golden brown.

While the first batch are baking, roll out, soda bathe, egg wash, and salt the second portion of dough. Remove the first pretzels from the oven, and set them aside to cool.

In a double boiler on medium low, melt the chocolate chips and stir in the peanut butter. Once the pretzels have cooled, partially dunk each one in chocolate and place on parchment paper or a silicone mat to dry. Allow pretzel hearts to rest in a cool place at least four hours or overnight for chocolate to harden. Or you can eat them as you dip them, fondue-style…whatever floats your boat!

A Thing to Draw!

Kinetic Energy, watercolor, ink, acrylic, and graphite on paper, 5 3/8" x 8 1/2"

Look! A Thing to Draw! In this case, TtD: Kinetic Energy. It’s been a while, but Things to Draw are officially back. Woohoo! My plan is to do one every Friday, which generally means it will appear here on Saturday, so keep an eye out.

In addition to that awesome development, there’s also this awesome development: I am now a self-employed artist. I’ll feel a lot better about that statement when I’m actually making money, but I have to be patient and remember that I’m in the investment phase of starting a business. I find it strange to think of my creative work as a business, but where commerce is involved, and it must be for me survive, business it is.

More to come soon!

When Anguish is a Food

I made this cake on Tuesday. Peanut butter mousse-filled butterscotch cake with cinnamon whipped cream frosting. I took solace in the mixing of butter and sugar, eggs, and flour. I took pleasure in the precision of slicing the layers, of spreading the mousse and smoothing the frosting. It was a good cake. Not great– the peanut butter overwhelmed the complexities within the flavor of the cake, but still, a good cake, tasty and pretty.

And yet, when it was done, all I wanted was to burst into tears.

Anguish Cake, ink on paper, 6" x 8"

I drew this picture of cake Tuesday morning, before I baked the actual cake. Between the two, we have my life right now. The making of meals and the making of images. As of today, I am no longer working two jobs. But for the last week-and-a-half, it’s been like this: before I leave for work, and when I come home at night, I draw and paint. In between, I fret. Actually, I fret a lot more than that.

My last day at the café is less than a week away. My last day at the bakery was yesterday. What? I know. I was so elated when I found a new job, one that allowed me to leave behind sandwiches and make pastry. To express my passion! But the moment I started, I could feel that the itch I meant to leave behind at the café had followed me.

I spent a heavy two days thinking about painting, about fear, about money, about faith and about success. Then I told the new bakery that after all I had made a mistake, and I’m not actually meant to be a pastry chef but a painter in truth,  and I couldn’t keep the job, but I’d stay till they found some one to replace me.

And I spent every day I was there wrestling with that decision. I may or may not be meant to be a pastry chef. When I cook out of love, it feels joyful. But so often, I cook to avoid facing my fears about painting. But here’s the thing: right now, I am painting.

I am just barely not overwhelmed enough that I can paint. Is that sentence confusing? It’s a confusing state of mind. In one moment, I am terrified. Utterly stricken by the fear that I cannot, in this moment, produce anything of true merit. And so of course I can’t. Which then kicks in the fear that I may never paint anything other than my own anxiety about overcoming fear.

Sketch: Things to Give, colored pencil and ink on paper, 5 1/2" x 7"

But in other moments, I can see clearly. Art is something I have to give. It is a way of cultivating wisdom, and a medium for sharing what is gained. I understand that if I can just mellow out enough to let expression happen naturally, without the vise of expectation strangling it, I’ll make good art. Art that helps. And then I do. I make art that people feel connected to, that people want. I can start to envision having a livelihood, one that’s not based on the fear of getting by but on the joy of creating and sharing.

But then I’d sink back down the dark tunnel, and I’d start to wonder if maybe I should just keep the job since they keep asking me to stay and what’s the harm in a little money on the side just to be safe?

And there’s the trap. The bear-pit among the autumn leaves. Safety. But I don’t want to be safe, goddamnit! I want to be brave. Yet I am so scared. I’ve been so tempted just to stay in my cozy identity of cook, to meander along with a meager income that’s enough to avoid really, really focusing on making art, for wisdom or for money. Then I’d feel like a coward, so I would try to make myself paint, and everything would come out full of fear, and the cycle would just keep spinning while I tried to make up my mind about what to do with my immediate future.

Pins and Needles, pencil on paper, 5" x 8"

Thus my days. Thus the extreme anguish of the peanut butter cake. I can’t just stay where it’s safe anymore. Safety feels empty. Meanwhile, living with my anxiety about both failure and success as an artist, as a contribution to this world, feels like every limb waking at once. A whole world of pins and needles. Welcome to the world.

My Life Might Look Like This

Wayne Thiebaud, Cakes, 1963

At least that’s the idea. Here’s the story…

Some of you may remember about a month-and-a-half ago, I posted the sole recipe to be seen thus far on this blog (What’s that about? Maybe that will change now.) with a story about how I told my chef that I was planning to leave the café. And then I never mentioned it again. Because I didn’t leave.

I told him I was looking, but I didn’t really look. He told me I had a great thing going where I was and summer was coming with lots of fun prix fixe meals and great dessert menu opportunities, and we both just kind of hung tight in that comfortable place. Except that I wasn’t very comfortable. I was working a job at which I felt kind of stuck on the premise that it was good for me and helpful to a friend.

Then two things happened. One day, we got slammed at lunch and I ran out of several ingredients because I hadn’t sufficiently prepped my line. I had figured, “we’ve been pretty mellow, and I have at least a bit of all the things I need, so I don’t really need to prep everything.” I took the lazy, unmotivated route instead of the proactive, passionate approach. Come service, I got caught more-or-less with my pants around my ankles and my chef let me know he knew it. Which I totally deserved.

After one afternoon of feeling sorry for myself for getting yelled at, it hit me. I was out of integrity, and I needed to make a change. I wasn’t committed to the work I was doing and that was negatively impacting the restaurant, my coworkers, and myself. Fortunately, it only took 86ing (running out of) one sandwich for one day and getting yelled at one time to make me see that it really was time to go after a month-and-a-half of procrastination.

Wayne Thiebaud, French Pastries, 1963

Then the second thing happened. I went for a walk on the beach one afternoon and spotted a new pastry shop on my way home. I parked, walked in, fell in love with the place on the spot, and asked if they were hiring. They were.

That was yesterday. Today, I gave my notice at one restaurant and put in my first hours at another. I’m moving from my first real restaurant job to my first real bakery job, and I am both thrilled and grateful. Grateful to the kitchen I am departing for giving me my first legitimate chance in the culinary industry, teaching me a ton, and sending me off with well-wishes. Grateful to the kitchen I am entering for giving me a chance to join their team and learn and welcoming me enthusiastically. Grateful to the universe for giving me a kick in the pants to move forward and then clearing a path to do so.

Bakery Counter, Wayne Thiebaud, 1963

This is why I am inundating you with pictures of Wayne Theibaud’s desserts. Because I have loved them since I was a child. Because they are the perfect medley of painting and pastry. And because, maybe, just maybe, now…my life will start to look like this.

Veins and New Changes

Skin and Veins, acrylic and ink on canvas board, 18" x 14"

You may have noticed that I haven’t posted a Thing to Draw these last two days. I haven’t drawn them either. What’s that about?

Well, I realized that, while TtD is great for keeping me in a regular practice of creating, it doesn’t necessarily have me producing what I want to be producing. I like Things to Draw because it keeps me trying new things and working on fresh ideas. On the other hand, a lot of the days I sat down to draw the prompts, I felt frustrated that I had to spend those twenty minutes or two hours making a picture of some random thing before I could work on any of the larger projects I have going. Not that I regret any of them. I mean, Love? Snails at Sea? How can one regret such things?

Anyway, I’ve decided to rearrange my time a bit. I don’t want to ditch TtD completely, but I’m thinking of executing one new Thing one day a week, as opposed to every day. That way, the rest of the days I can devote to working on exciting, scary, big things. The fact that getting in the habit of making stuff every day has already motivated me enough that I want to tackle big, scary projects astounds me. But hey, that’s great– I’ll take it!

Veins Sketches, ink and pencil on paper, 4" x 8"

When I vaguely allude to big, scary projects, I am mostly talking about my painting series at this point. I have a couple of other big, scary ideas that I’ve been toying with but they are, so far, still too big and scary to tackle. I’ll let you know when that changes. For now: painting.

For years I have mostly painted by simply taking a brush and starting to put paint on a canvas and then following the image to its logical aesthetic conclusion. Occasionally I’ll do a mini sketch just to figure out how to arrange a line or shape, but mostly I just go for it. This approach sometimes works out great and some times results in paintings that just don’t work or work but don’t exactly express what I was hoping they would express.

Sketch: Purple Veins, acrylic, ink and colored pencil on paper, 10.5" x 8.5"

Skin and Veins, the painting at the beginning of this post, is one of the latter. It’s finished, I’d call it successful, and I can’t deny that it captures a good deal of the trepidation and questioning I felt as I was painting it. But somehow, I’m not done with it. I find myself still really interested in the different elements of the painting. I think they have a lot of potential to develop in other directions. I want to make a more clean and clear image as sort of a progeny of the first painting.

So for more-or-less the first time, I am drawing and redrawing the same image over and over in different ways: getting to know it, exploring it. Making images like the ones here, sketches for what I am tentatively calling Veins, Pt. 2. And I’m having fun! Working every day takes away the stress of having to make something finished and perfect right this second. Instead I can play; I can let my images come to life and evolve in their own time. And I think I just might end up with a final painting that I’m proud of, one that expresses something I feel positive about and that I am excited to share. Who knows…

Sketch: Gold Veins, acrylic, ink and colored pencil on paper, 11" x 9"

Thanks to Things to Draw for getting me started. The journey continues.


Things to Draw: Love

Love, watercolor, acrylic, and colored pencil on paper

Of everything I could have drawn for this prompt, I chose to make a picture of my own little ideal of love.  I have a relatively short list of things I really want out of life, and even then I suppose I’m flexible. Anyway, in no particular order: a cottage in the woods, a family, a successful career as an artist, and to be a contribution to this world.

To me, happiness and love are pretty darn close to each other: giving and receiving with an open heart and mind. Maybe love is the act of doing so, while happiness is the state-of-mind when you do so. Either way, this little daydream encapsulates all that for me: a wee house (with a studio on the inside of course!) close to nature, a place to build a family and to cultivate love and joy and wisdom to be shared.