Tis the season of giving which should be a joyful experience of blessing ones friends and family with little love and generousity. Potentially gifts should say so much; I love you, I understand you, I think of you… pressure!

Whilst preparing for Christmas I recently reflected on the best gifts that I had received during 2011, they had two things in common: they were all second hand and thus, they all came with a story..so I though I would share a few of them with you, I can never resist a story!

Most Kitsch

I had taken a notion back in the earlier part of this year to find for myself a stuffed bird, preferably a canary. However, the purchase of this particulr item would have proved too costly. My wee brother  found this little pair of beauties in an antique shop in Saintfield. Aparently they had belnged to the owner who had them hung in her halway for decades. I named them Peter and Paul, somehow the filled the gap that had been waiting for the yellow canary and I halted my search!

Most Random

I was very puzzled when a good friend of mine brought this gift over out of the blue, fully wrapped in sparkly paper. Isn’t it fascinating to discover  what people think of when they think of you?! My friend Edyta  knows that I appreciate a bit of good old retro product design. Her husband was working on the renovation of a house and found this Electrolux hoover sitting all by itself (dead as a doornail) in a room that time forgot and so they thought of me!. Edyta’s father,who lived and worked through communism in Poland when times were tough and everyone did anything to fix up, re-cycle and re-use, knew exactly what this little h00ver needed to bring it back to life. He worked 0n it every evening for nearly a week and managed to breath new life into it’s beautiful little retro body. It actually works incredibly well and is as strong as an ox, makes you wonder what’s been happening in the progress of hoovers over the last 40 years!

 

Most weird

Most people who walk into my house find the sight of this deer skull slightly disconcerting. For me, it brings back  memories of the crisp February day  that I found the deer carcass tucked in behind a rotting boat on the shore of  a mountain lake. It must have sheltered there during the winter and not made it through, I felt quite attached to it immediately, the kids and I named it Smokey! We took the skull home and after bleaching it I handed it over to my husband with a request to have it mounted in some way for my birthday. The carpenter who mounted it did a beautiful job, creating an oak panel and attaching poor Smokey’s skull ever so carefully.  Smokey is mounted high up on our kitchen wall, I feel him gives the room a good old fashioned mountain lodge feel!

Most Precious

Most of my friends know of my love of tea sets, I have already blogged more than once about beautiful tea cups, cakes and sugary things. It’s fun searching for interesting tea sets in charity shops and flea markets but  it’s ten times more wonderful to be given something special. Recently my friend gave me this tea set, apart from the fact that it is more beautiful than the majority of sets that I own, I love the story that comes with it! It belonged to an elderly gentleman who passed away at the age of 92, he was the great uncle of my friend Elaine. The tea set belonged to himself and his wife and would have been their good set (probably from their wedding) which explains the perfect condition it’s in. The couple met during the war when she was sent out from the Donegal Pass as a refugee to the far flung safety of Purdysburn (about six miles away). I don’t know much else about their history  but I love to think of them sitting in their good room together sipping tea from their beautiful china and reminiscing about the circumstances in which they met.

Most cute!

I found this little parcel lying on my door mat last week, it was only the size of a matchbox!

I love anything wrapped in brown paper!  It was from a friend who spends a lot of time in France, he had found some tiny pill boxes which he thought I may be able ton use for one of my slightly eccentric pieces of artwork (as seen below!)


A Wigwam is not something you generally throw together without prior thought or preparation, so impromptu may sound a little odd, however…

When I was a child my dad undertook a project of making a shelter with us from tree poles. It was for my brothers school project but the whole family got involved, I have lovely memories of hanging around in the woods all day, and watching the structure emerge, the excitement of afterwards being able to sit inside this home with the damp mossy ground underneath and the sunlight filtering through the woven fern roof. The shelter survived for quite a number of years and each time I walked the nearby path, I would glimpse the building through the trees getting more skeletal as each year passed.

I have had a thought in the back of my mind for some time that I should do something similar for my boys, though how,I did not know as my woodsman skills are limited compared to my father’s. 

It was a lovely surprise then, to find myself in the possession of eight beautifully straight poles which I cut from a bay tree which had spread too much.

Jonah was able to get involved trimming the excess branches and leaves, we just threw the structure up by finding poles that leaned nicely against each other, might not have passed building control but it stood.

Finally I found some sheets and tablecloths and pinned them together with clothes pegs, it was really a lot simpler than expected.

The boys had the most wonderful day playing inside their tipi, they took it very seriously transforming themselves into a king and his servant, it’s not just girls who like to play houses!

 


My eye was attracted to a clamour of intriguing vintage objects as I made my way up one of the tiny narrow cobbled streets in the Jordaan area of Amsterdam. 

It was the style of the objects which made me stop in my tracks, at first it could have been mistaken for a French brocante but on closer inspection it turned out to be a much more unusual find for this part of the world, America vintage!

A glorious mishmash of signing, crockery, toys and furniture, each piece with a history and story to tell of a life on another continent.

Wonderfully battered lived in surfaces, solid wood marked with ownership of life, toys scraped and played with but still holding on to their former beauty, enamel signs in strong colours and simple type harking back to their original purpose.

 

Gathered together by a man with a dream, Mark Woodley, former resident of New York grew tired of the pressures of living a trendy life. In true filmic style he got himself a truck and hit the road, driving all over Michigan, Connecticut and Maine sniffing out his incredible collection from rural yard sales on the road.

 

 

Mark has also sought out newly created items giving his shop a more diverse range. Every item Mark chooses has a story which has won him over and is likely to ultimately win his customers over. One such example is a range of gigantic three dimensional traditionally designed stars fashioned by an Amish community from old barn roofs, the urge to stroke the galvanised metal surface is irresistible, layers of paint battered and faded by the endless drive of weather causes colour and texture no man could re-create.

 

You can find ‘Hudson River’ on Eerste Egelantiersdwarsstraat in the Jordaan area of Amsterdam. www.hudsonriver.nl

 


Amsterdam is obviously well known for its coffee houses and crazy cakes but not the type you’ll find in ‘De taart van m’n tante’ 

Translated ‘My Aunties cakes’, this tea room is not a place you could easily walk by and miss. The floor to ceiling old style windows are crammed with crazy kitsch objects, colour,  pattern and most importantly cakes which pull you in and lead down the culinary path of no return. 

The interior has evolved over twenty years into a wonderful ecclectic mix of old and new, plastic and leather, flat colour and busy pattern.  Walking into ‘De taart van m’n tante’ from the cold wet street was like falling down a rabbit hole (often happens to me) and waking up in another world, I didn’t know what direction to turn, where to focus my attention first. In every direction there were towering cakes in colours and patterns I had never imagined, collections of strange and amusing figurines, objects and furniture from every decade. The interior design plan:  as long as it passes the kitsch test, it gets in.

It shouldn’t really work because it’s all so mismatched and crazy but it does. I reckon it must be the more relaxed attitude of the Dutch towards creativity which allows them to pull it all together and get away with it. They seem to be able to go with the flow and enjoy putting interiors together without becoming too purist and serious about it all, it makes Northern Irish cafes seem so terribly staid! 

The cakes themselves which are all created in the family bakery, display a slightly unhinged but absolutely glorious attitude. They shout freedom, fun and party on! if you’re going to have a big sugary monster of a celebration cake why opt for muted colours and dainty rose petals like everyone else? 

On Sunday afternoon the tea room was buzzing, it’s obviously a popular spot with families and especially ladies! What lady does not appreciate a spot of tea and a decent chunk of attractive looking cake! I, myself could not resist the most colourful item on display in the chiller, I never could steer clear of contrasting colours! Swedish Princess cake, with a delectable surface of smooth deep green marzipan decorated with raspberry pink swirls. I didn’t expect it to taste good, having been hooked on looks only but it turned out to be equally wonderful though not as colourful on the inside. 

At the very back of the tearoom grouped around a retro ceramic coffee table sat two big studded leather armchairs, one in mossy green. The sofa was covered with wildly mismatched crochet squares, the area brimming with colour and pattern to a bursting point. The only improvement which could have been made to this area would have been to have a few kindly grannies permanently parked on the sofa to offer friendly advice and give knitting lessons (now there’s a new business idea, anyone?)


‘De taart  van ma tante’ can be found near the beginning of Ferdinand Bolstraat close to the henniken factory. They also have a bed and breakfast above the shop aptly named  ‘Cake under my pillow’ which looks equally intriguing.  www.detaart.com

Riding on the tram out of Amsterdam centre, my eyes are glued not on the cutting edge architecture or ancient canal houses which this city is so famous for.  It’s the bikes I can’t tear my eyes off, not just their sheer numbers or even their chic riders, it’s the bikes themselves, they have style! Amsterdam residents clearly take much enjoyment in the decoration of their bikes, the more colour, bling, fake flowers and kitschery involved the better! 

One of my favourite happenings at this time of year is the harvesting of fruit trees. It’s not often in adulthood that you get a chance to climb a tree and the ascent is made all the better by a semi sensible sense of purpose! The exhilaration of clambering up the apple tree and greedily grabbing as many apples as you can manage whilst precariously hanging off some far too thin branch, it’s a great feeling made all the nicer by the crisp clear skies of late September. This year my son Jonah was just tall and strong enough to pull himself up after me and took great pride in being the chief basket handler, in a few years he’ll put me out of a job.

This is after all an event which can only take place once a year, the moment of surveying and assessing the crop, gathering it in at the right moment and storing those waxy healthy looking green globes is soon over, the tree is empty and the bulging baskets wait to be made into tasty pies or sit the winter out at the back of the garden shed wrapped in blankets.

Picking apples brings back memories from childhood of my Great Uncle Con’s fizzy apple juice, he was quite an eccentric character and his apple juice seemed exciting and mysterious to us children, looking back now I realise that, as it was fizzy, it may have had some alcohol content, maybe that why we liked it so much! Uncle Con was always to be found out doors, wandering around the garden in his Donegal Tweed jacket, often with a piece of baler twine tied around his waist. I don’t know where he kept his apple juice, it appeared from some shed or outdoor place, the bottles were dusty and smelt musty but the juice was tangy and fresh. In the days I knew him he was an elderly man who travelled all over Ireland searching for rare wild flowers to photograph, he enjoyed sugar puffs for breakfast and cut the sleeves off all his shirts before wearing them. He died in his eightieth year whilst driving up the beautiful country lane to his house, just took a heart attack, the car rolled a stop.

I like the idea of making apple juice in memory of my old uncle Con, pity I don’t have the recipe but likely it was never written down, I’m not sure what i’ll do with my share of the crop but the possibilities are endless..

I was recently invited to a party thrown by an art teacher who happens to be amazingly creative, very inspiring and just a little bit crazy (as all art teachers should be).  The dress code requested was to come as ‘a work of art’. There was not even a single second of hesitation in mind when the invitation came through; it was just too tempting, as if I had been waiting for this moment for the last decade!

I was first introduced to the  extraordinary and complex character of Frida Khalo during my  my first teaching practice at Strathern. The Head of Art I was working under was a pretty passionate feminist and a big supporter of women artists, I probably learnt more from her about art history than I ever did at art college. When I went on to teach art myself, I used Frida Khalo’s work frequently with my younger students, they were often at first repulsed and confused by her work but once they learnt a bit about her passionate and tragic life story, they were soon able to decipher the symbolisim in her paintings and connect with the sadness and desires at the heart of Frida Khalo’s paintings.


If you don’t know Khalo, I recommend 2002 film ‘Frida’ staring Salma Hayek, it gives a pretty comprehensive and slightly too beautiful representation of her crazy, fairly short life.

One of the attractions for me of Khalo’s work is her representation of Mexican culture in both her paintings and exaggerated traditional costumes. Since her death, The Mexican people have raised her to an iconic status, their representations of her in their altars and day of the dead figures are incredible looking works of art in themselves and have inspired some of my own work built inside vintage tin boxes.

 

Getting back to the party you can see I didn’t quite pull off the sad intense Khalo stare without making it look just a bit too grumpy! The bazaar thing was, I wasn’t the only Frida at the party infact most works of art turning up at the party had a double: there were several American Gothics, banksys and Van Goghs, how crazy is that given the vast world of art out there!

I know last Saturday was reportedly  the hottest October day since records began but that was somewhere millions of miles away in the South of England whilst here in Belfast the skies opened and relentlessly poured all day.

It seemed obvious to me that it was shopping weather but since I am now a stay at home mum, going into town was not such an inviting offer, instead I decided to hit the charity shops….

I did go at it a little too hard, covering 16 charity shops in four hours, not such a relaxing Saturday afternoon. It’s just once you get started on charity shops it becomes a bit addictive, you go to the first few and maybe find a gem and then you continue seeking on, intent on finding more hidden treasures and none appear. I am surprised though at the price increase in charity shops, they are definitely getting more savvy at extracting money from us (which is their good and honourable purpose), a couple of years ago it was possibly easier to come across incredible vintage crockery, now you have to search all the harder and longer….

 

 

This afternoon I hosted an afternoon tea party for my sister in law’s baby shower.

It was a very civilised affair with lots of mummies and no children, don’t get me wrong, I love to party with children but I was astounded at how much easier it was to clean up after the mums! no spilled juice or cup cakes mushed into the ground, well done ladies!

 

I have to admit, I did rather enjoy arranging the cake stands and pouring tea for people. Afternoon tea parties are really just a grown up version of how I used to spend my Sunday afternoons when I was a child. I’d spend hours arranging my dollies around in a circle and then I would give out hand made invitations to my family. My mum and dad would inevitably be slumbering in front of the fire and my brothers raking through a box of Lego whilst I  annoyingly pulled persistently at their sleeves, begging them to attend my tea party. My mum still has pangs of guilt about not being more supportive of my tea parties! but then they were a little too frequent and the assembled guests maybe weren’t the most lively!

Anyway, at least this afternoon I got to dust off my vintage tea sets, arrange the cup cakes and serve the guests who this time all seemed to arrive willingly and without the need for persuasion! and don’t worry, I left my dollies in the attic! 

Sadly I took very few photos of the event as I spent most of the time making pots of tea but here are some at least…


When my mum turned sixty she knew that she has one big chance to ask for anything she wanted, it was likely that another opportunity for a big birthday present might not come up again for another twenty years and she was ready to grab it with both hands. She obviously had a number of years to consider her request and what she asked for ,a summer house, really was her dream. 

When my dad, who in this case was the considerer and provider of all massive requests heard this one, he agreed it was a good suggestion and one that I dare say he may have had designs on himself.

Thus followed a series of summer house searching trips.  I was quite surprised by this attempt to find and purchase a summer house, it’s not very typical of my parents approach to life and I would have been very shocked to have seen a lorry delivering a fully made up PVC window clad shed to their wonderful and character filled garden.

It was no surprise then that the search was fruitless and my dad embarked on a two year birthday present making pursuit which clearly didn’t make the deadline.

 The time he put into simply designing this little summer house was in itself admirable, the initial desins were sketched and then further tinkered with on the computer, measured and re measured and then adjusted as friends heard of the project and offered bits and pieces from the dark corners of their own sheds. Over the course of the next two years the foundations were laid and the bare wooden structure of the summer house appeared.

Needless to say the building project did suck up a lot more time than my dad had allowed for, it ate into his work time, it popped up in his dreams, at times the pace of work got him down, there’s no doubt about it, this was not a day long, barn raising style build!

It was only this summer in the frantic build up to the garden wedding that my dad was happy to pronounce the summer house finally finished! Already this little building has started to claim it’s own character, it has hosted birthday afternoon tea, picnics, sleepy sundays and staying up chatting into the wee small hours.

For my mum, she has her dream, hopefully she will find the time to relax and enjoy it.

For my dad, he has created a summer house previously dreamed of, not just some square box  that you can buy off the shelf but one that fits the space, does the job, looks that part and incorporates all the bits that were lying around in the back of peoples sheds and needed a place.

But for me, when I look at the summer house I see a birthday present that has taken more man hours and more splintered fingers than I can ever imagine putting into a gift. It’s a legacy of love and a place for growing older together.