Monday, December 31, 2012

A Year and a Word: My 400th Post

I awoke early with the cats this morning and watched the light outside my kitchen window shift from deep blue to grey-blue to soft white as I ate my steel-cut oats and almond milk.  It was a morning like any other, except this one was the last of its year.  I had some thinking to do.  What would be my word for 2013?  I still hadn't decided.

And then I was smacked by a stomach bug.  It's one that I think I've been fighting since Christmas Eve.  It finally won, and I climbed back in bed, where I was joined by wild dreams of traveling to Paris, only to find that I was in a high school gymnasium and I had to cheerlead again, decades after my cheerleading days.  I had, of course, forgotten all the words and motions, and everyone was furious with me.  Not a promising sign for 2013.

And yet I woke up with the word for the year in my head.  "Persevere."  I've had to persevere through some pretty terrible times over the past several years, and I've managed to do it, but I have been wondering whether I could do it this time.  I must persevere as a writer now more than ever when I have two manuscripts trying to find homes and a whole bag of worries and fears to carry with me as I move forward.  

"Persevere" is not as pretty as "inspire" or "grace," my words from 2012 and 2011, but it is real, and it's what I tell my students to do all the time.  It's also what I need.  Perseverance gets harder for me as I grow older and I fear I won't achieve many of the things of which I've dreamed.  I am not as patient in the face of rejection now, something I see loads and loads of as a writer.  I see successes, too, but I don't linger on those.  I tend to linger on my failures.  "Persevere" will require a whole slew of other words like "hope" and "optimism" and "try" to come along for the ride.  

As Samuel Beckett writes: "Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better."

Here's to 2012 and to failing better.  I wish you all love and adventure and a dose of perseverance in the coming year.  

xo Gigi 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Just a Bit Longer

I admit it.  I enjoy the tree even more after Christmas is over, during that little window before New Year's.  We are, after all, waiting for the epiphany, so why not keep the decorations up a while more?

And here in Maine we've had loads of snow . . . with more predicted over the weekend.  Time to light a fire, turn on the tree, and enjoy a bit more sparkle.

Here's a closeup of my pinecone garland.  I showed you the wreath a while back, but the garland was fun to make, too.  I wired cones to a long length of chain I found at the craft store, then I added keys from my ever-growing vintage key collection.  Especially pretty are the brass ones, I think.  I ended up loving this garland so much that I doubt I'll take it down after New Year's.  It will make a lovely winter decoration even after the rest of Christmas is tucked safely away.

We spent the day today painting our condo in preparation for new renters.  Here's hoping the next ones will be better than the last.  We are having to refinish the floors, replace the carpets, and paint all the walls, to name a few things that they ruined, but on the upside, the place will look gorgeous when we are through.  I'm trying hard to focus on the blessings to be found in even the most trying of situations.  They are always there, and perhaps it will be my New Year's resolution to discover them with a bit more grace and patience than I have in the past.

Thinking of you, my friends, and hoping you enjoyed a beautiful Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Homemade Needhams: A Maine Christmas Treat

Okay, my lovelies, this is going to be quick because, like many of you, I am rushing this morning to finish a million and one last-minute tasks, but I really, really wanted to get that Needham recipe out to you.

We made a double batch, but I'll give you the single recipe.  Just know that it doubles beautifully, if you want to make loads of them for, say, your New Years party.  Needhams are a Maine tradition at Christmas, and there are lots of recipes for them out there, most of them including paraffin wax to help the chocolate harden and give it a bit of sheen.  I don't like putting wax in chocolate, so my recipe has a bit of shortening instead.  They set beautifully, and I usually store them in the fridge in plastic.  I love them either cold or at room temperature.

You see that little bump on the top of each one?  That's a roasted, salted almond.  Traditional Needhams don't have them, but I love to gild the lily.  If you love Almond Joys, make these, and you will never settle for a store bought one again!

The Maine Magpie's Needhams 
  • 1 1-pound box of confectioner's sugar
  • 1/2 cup plain smooth mashed potato (I use a russet.  I peel the potato, boil it, then throw it in the food processor and whip it until it's basically a smooth paste.  This is how you'll want it for the recipe.)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 14-ounce bag shredded, sweetened coconut
  • 1- 1 1/2 pounds bittersweet chocolate, chopped or broken into pieces (I use a little over over a pound.)
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable shortening
  • About 30-40 almonds (depending on how big you make your squares)
Pour the confectioner's sugar into a large heatproof bowl.  Make a well in the middle, then add the potato, butter, vanilla, and salt.

Place bowl over a pot of barely simmering water.  Stir from the center of the well, gradually incorporating the sugar.  After a few minutes, you'll end up with a thick, smooth paste.  

Remove from the heat and stir in the coconut.  Taste.  Yum.

At this point some folks spread the mixture on a jellyroll pan and freeze it.  Once chilled for about 20 minutes, they cut it into 1" squares to dip in the chocolate.  Others freeze it right in the bowl and then form each square individually by hand.  The choice is yours.  I molded each one by hand because I wanted them to have a very homemade look.  If you do it this way, it's important to freeze them one more time after shaping them and before dipping them.

Melt the chocolate in a microwave safe bowl.  I do 30-second intervals, stirring between each one.  Be careful not to scorch the precious chocolate!

Once the chocolate is smooth and melty, stir in the shortening.  Be sure to incorporate it completely.

Now you're ready to dip!  I use a fork to dip each square in the chocolate, but first I press a roasted, salted almond into the top of each square.  I can't stress enough how much this extra little touch adds to the Needhams. 

Let the candies cool and harden at room temperature on parchment covered cookie sheets for at least an hour.

I so hope you'll  enjoy these traditional Maine treats, my friends.  Sending you and yours all best wishes for a very Merry Christmas.  May you spend it just the way you wish, and may you discover moments of peace amidst the rush of the season.  

xo Gigi

Friday, December 21, 2012

Blue (and White) Christmas

I hope all my friends here in the northern hemisphere are safe and warm on this winter solstice.  It is very dark, very windy, and very rainy on the coast of Maine tonight.  The wind is so strong that it's pushing the smoke right back down our chimney, but we are warm and dry inside, and I could not ask for more.  The Christmas tree is twinkling and the candles are flickering on the mantle.  I've made a huge batch of needhams, that very special Maine Christmas candy treat made with potatoes, coconut, and dark chocolate.  I promise to share the recipe later in the weekend, but for tonight I thought I'd finally share a few shots of our bedroom.

We decided to decorate it for Christmas with a lovely branch that had been blown down from one of our trees during a storm.  The branch strung with a few lights was all we needed to bring a little sparkle to this dark time of year.  I had planned to hang crystal icicles from the branches, but once the lights were on, I loved it as it was.

The bed we bought locally at The Furniture Market in South Portland, where the fabulous Mimi helped us decide on this rich navy blue color.  We ordered a model with drawers underneath, and I am so, so glad that we did!  Between those drawers and that big old chest next to the bed (bought cheap from friends who were moving), we have tons of storage.  The bolster on the bed is an old French grain sack that I found at Montsweag Flea Market this past summer.  I made the smaller pillow from a very sweet tea towel.  That wonderful ladder leaning against the chimney in the first shot was a gift from my sister, who bought it a couple of years ago at the Bath Antiques Show (formerly owned and operated by my mum, now run by her friend Paul Fuller).

The walls and ceiling of the bedroom were never really finished off, as this was once the attic of the cottage, so we simply painted over the knots in the pine with sealer and then whitewashed everything.  We wanted it to feel rustic, but also bright and clean.

On another painting note, I wanted to mention the white paint on the chimney.  The chimney was not painted when we moved in.  If you've ever considered painting brick but were unsure about how it would work, have no fear.  As long as you prime it correctly and use the proper masonry paint, you will have no problems at all!  Benjamin Moore has everything you need to to the job beautifully.

Our bedroom is really more of a sleeping loft, with our two studies just off to one side.  One end of the loft has this wonderful, beat-up old dresser that we bought from some friends, plus our now infamous boot collection, and our old suitcases full of CDs.  

The floor is hardwood, but it was in terrible shape when we moved in, so we decided to paint it a very soft grey, which we couldn't love more.  I found the blue and ivory shades for next to nothing at Christmas Tree Shop a few years ago.  We hung them in our last apartment, then brought them along with us to the house.  I'm so glad we did, as they fit this room perfectly!

Above is a detail of the old trunk beside the bed.  That mirror is a lovely vintage one I found in a junk shop in Bloomington, Indiana, about a hundred years ago.  The ironstone pitcher is one from my collection.  I love tucking eucalyptus into my ironstone pitchers this time of year and just letting it dry around the house. 

If you look closely, you'll notice that the trunk has pencil and marker lines on it.  These were scribbled by our friends' daughters before they sold us the trunk.  I don't have the heart to paint over them.  Somehow they add to the trunk's charm for me.   

Ah, and then there are the lockers.  Mr. Magpie and I bought these three years ago at a great antiques shop in Hallowell.  If you like antiques and plan to visit Maine anytime soon, Hallowell is a must.  I've written about it before, because I love that little town, plus you can always grab lunch at Slates.  Yum.

I should mention that the lockers were bright orange when we bought them, but they cost almost nothing, and I just spray painted them white.  Easy peasy.

The doctor's bag I bought at a flea market--probably Montsweag--and the old French house number I found in London at Spitalfield's Market.  Is it obvious by now that I am a flea market kind of magpie?  The shot below should seal the deal.  I love sparkle, and so you can always find bits of vintage sparkle around our bedroom, as well as the rest of the house.  Here it's hanging from an old metal hook in the wall.

Hope you enjoyed this peek into the sleeping loft.  I have a few more Christmasy photos to share later in the weekend, plus that Needham recipe, which probably sounds just awful, but I promise is delightful!  

Until then, sending a sleighful of Christmas cheer to you and yours.  xo Gigi

Monday, December 10, 2012

News, Shameless Self-Promotion, and Heartfelt Thanks

I hope you all had beautiful weekends.  Here in Portland, Maine, it was all about local crafts, local food, and great local shops.  The highlight for me was attending the Picnic Holiday Sale.  Click here for links to many of the amazing craftspeople and artisans who were selling their wares.  Most of them have online shops where you can buy their glorious work.

I also wanted to share a little of my own publishing and photography news with you.  Have been meaning to for ages, but as Mr. Magpie will tell you, I stink at self-promotion.

A piece I wrote on Polish Gypsy poet Papusza was published online in The Gypsy Chronicles.  If you head over to read it, you'll learn a bit about this fascinating woman.  She was very much the center of my academic research and work for an important period in my life, and I'm thrilled to be able to share some of her story on such a fantastic site.  Thank you, Alison Mackie, for publishing this essay.

Art Prints

And finally, I just wanted to let you know that one of my photographs, "Peonies," is available for purchase at Fine Art America.  Prints start at $22.00, but you can purchase a greeting card for $4.95, a pack of 10 cards for $2.45/card, or a pack of 25 cards for $1.75/card.  I'm thinking it might make a nice holiday gift for peony lovers.  :)

Thanks for reading along with me, and for offering such wonderful comments, here and via email and face-to-face.  I love this online community of ours, especially when it spills over into our snail mailboxes and our everyday lives.  Blogging has changed a great deal since many of us started back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, but as we redefine ourselves and our blogs in relation to the onslaught of social media, I'm finding that the true blue friends I've made along the way are just that--friends--and this makes me happier than I can possibly say.  

xo Gigi

Friday, December 7, 2012

Wreaths and Trees

Hello, chickadees!  Just wanted to touch base, because I've been away for so long.  I'm planning a holiday post to show you a few pictures of the new house all decked out for the season, but today I thought I'd share a teeny sneak peek of a little bit of the tree plus a pinecone wreath I made from the gazillions of them we have in our backyard.  Some people might not like having to pick up all those cones, but I consider every last one of them a gift from our massive white pine.  And when I say massive, I mean it's branches begin higher up than the the tops of many of our other trees.

I promise not to post a tutorial on how to make the pinecone wreath.  Why not?  Well, because when I set out to make mine, I did a Pinterest search and a Google search (I like to be thorough) for pinecone wreath tutorials, and guess what?  There are almost as many pinecone wreath tutorials online as there are pinecones in my backyard, so you don't need me to add to the pile.  I will say this: while a pinecone wreath is simple to make, it is time-consuming, and it takes many, many cones to create a full wreath.  Oh, and yards and yards and yards of wire.  I used a very thin gauge wire, so I didn't hurt my fingers too much, and I used a grapevine wreath as the base.  Some tutorials I read said to sort the cones by size first, but I just eyeballed them as I went along, using larger cones for the outside ring, smaller cones for the inside ring, and cones somewhere in-between for the middle ring.  This approach seemed to work well with the longish cones of the white pine.  If you had shorter cones, you'd be making a very different kind of wreath with very different results.  Equally pretty, but quite different.  

Okay, I said no tutorial, but the above paragraph was starting to veer into tutorial territory.  Sorry about that.  I just get so excited about Christmas.  It was my father's favorite time of year, and it is still a magical time at my mother's house.  Last weekend, Mr. Magpie and I went and bought a tree for my mother to have outside on her back deck where she can see it when she's in her kitchen as well as when she pulls into her driveway.  This has become an annual tradition for us.  We brace it with twine to hold up during storms, string it with white lights, et c'est tout!  Beautiful simplicity to enjoy through the New Year holiday.  Of course she has her inside tree, too, and her amazing collection of vintage Santas, all of which I love.

Back here at home, our annual tradition is now to cut down our own tree.  If you're local and like wild-looking trees rather than perfectly pruned ones, I'll let you in on our secret: we go to Staples Tree Farm in Windham on Christmas Tree Way, just off Webb Road.  It's $30 for any size tree, no matter how tall, and they have gorgeous specimens to choose from, plus handmade wreaths and kissing balls at prices well below any others I've seen in the Portland area.  True, some get a little Dr. Seussical, as you can see in my Instagram photo, but that's just part of the fun!  

I'll be back soon with holiday musings and other news, but in the meantime, I wish you a Happy Holiday Season, whatever you celebrate, and however you celebrate it.  

xo Gigi

P.S. I'd love to hear from you about your favorite annual holiday traditions, especially the ones that kind of snuck up on you and became traditions without your even realizing it at first.  

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Winners!

Just a quick note in between baking pies to let you all know that we drew two giveaway winners from Random Number Generator.  Congratulations to Relyn Lawson!  You've won the painting of the gorgeous purple peaches plums by Elizabeth Floyd!  And congratulations as well to Lynne from Dreams on 34th Street for winning the set of notecards!  

Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway, and thanks as well to you, Liz, for sharing your beautiful art with us.

Wishing all of my friends here in the United States a Happy Thanksgiving.  I am thankful for much this year, including your friendship and inspiration.

xo Gigi

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Very Special Giveaway!

I have a fabulous surprise.  This week I am thrilled to be hosting a giveaway of this beautiful painting of plums by Elizabeth Floyd.  

One of the the things I love most about blogging is the opportunity it gives me to meet talented and inspiring people.  Liz stumbled upon my blog a few months back.  She left a comment, and as so magically happens in this blog world of ours, this in turn led me to her blog and her website, where I fell immediately in love with her still-life paintings and landscapes.  I also came to realize that, while she is a visual artist and I am a writer, we share many of the same inspirations and ideas about the creative life.       

I think we both realize how much work and discipline it takes to even begin to master one's craft, but in the midst of all that work lies the discovery of profound beauty and joy.  Like me, Liz works at her art daily, and her dedication is obvious.  Her paintings have been shown in numerous exhibitions across the country and are in collections all over the world.  

And one of them could be yours!  Liz is offering this gorgeous framed painting of plums ($200 retail value) to one lucky reader of The Magpie's Fancy.  Simply leave a comment between now and next Wednesday, November 21st at noon EST to enter the giveaway.  The winner will be announced later that same day.

Plus, if you would like an extra chance to win, simply subscribe to Liz's mailing list here.

And as a special bonus, we will draw one more winner, who will receive a set of 5 fine art notecards printed with with a detail of Liz's floral still-life painting on the front, Still Life with Azaleas and Bowl.

To see more of Liz's paintings and notecards available for purchase, visit her Etsy shop here.

It's an honor and a joy to get to share Liz's work with you.  I have one of her paintings (pink zinnias in a chartreuse vase) resting on my mantle at home, and Mr. Magpie and I both love it.  Liz's work is even more beautiful--and more luminous--in person than digital photos can capture.  Trust me when I say that this is one giveaway you don't want to miss! 

I hope you are having an inspiring and creative November, my friends.  xo Gigi

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Falling Leaves and Pumpkin Seeds

Happy November, my friends!  My three-month-old MacBook hard drive crashed last week, and it's still not back from the Mac Store yet.  I miss it, but in the meantime, Mr. Magpie is lending me his laptop.  I know I've been promising photos of the house, and they are coming, but delayed furniture deliveries and other hold ups are slowing down progress on the house.  We're loving being here all the same, so it doesn't really matter to us!  For the moment I thought I'd just share a moody late afternoon instagram shot of one of my kitchen windows. 

October was wonderful here in our new neighborhood.  One highlight was a visit from our niece, with whom we built an entire fairy village, complete with street signs, a hospital, school, a senior center--yes, she's that thoughtful a girl--a restaurant, farm, lookout tower, and much more.  I have tons of photos that I'll share once my computer is up and running, but in the meantime, here's one of the fairy houses.  This one's long gone now, as it was one of the first to be eaten by the giants squirrels who invaded the village.

Our lovely dead end street just an hour before Hurricane Sandy hit.  We have wonderful woods for exploring and for gathering fairy village supplies at the end of the street.

The morning after Sandy hit the waves at Portland Head Light were monstrous--beautiful, but monstrous.  We were fortunate to lose just a few tree limbs during the storm.  Our hearts go out to all those who lost loved ones or whose homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed. 

As the winds raged around our little house, we nursed a sick kitty (who is now on the mend, thanks to antibiotics) and made Halloween cards. 

And the first Halloween in the house was a good one.  We bought far too much candy, as we had no idea how many ghouls and superheroes would show up, and we didn't want to run out.  So leftover m&m's it is for dessert from now until . . . well a long time from now.  Sigh.  I like m&m's too much for my own good.

Last but not least, I roasted pumpkin seeds this morning from the seeds leftover after carving jack-o-lanterns last night.  The recipe follows below.  More just as soon as my MacBook's up and running.  Thanks for bearing with me, lovelies!

Quick Roasted Pumpkin Seeds
  • approximately 2 cups washed and dried pumpkin seeds
  • about 5 dashes worchestershire sauce
  • a dash or two (or more) of your favorite hot sauce
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
  • about 1 teaspoon cajun spices
  • salt to taste
  • about 1 tablespoon demarara sugar
  • about one tablespoon olive oil.
Toss all ingredients together in a bowl.  Let sit.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Once the oven is heated, pour the coated seeds onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and roast for about 10 minutes.  Take them out, stir well, then put back into the oven for another 5 minutes. Stir and repeat.  I ended up roasting mine for a total of about 25 minutes, but it will vary depending on how wet your seeds are to begin with.  Just keep checking on them and stirring them every five minutes and you won't burn them.  Let cool, then munch away!

A warm welcome to new readers and a big hug to old friends.  xo Gigi

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Pecan Pie

I promise photos of the house very soon, but in the meantime, I have to share a recipe with you.  Over the weekend I made a pecan pie for a very special family event, and I thought, what better dessert to celebrate autumn than pecan pie?

I've made it before, but I decided to try a new recipe this time, and I'm glad I did.  Actually, I combined a couple of different recipes from Martha Stewart and Nick Malgieri, added a few variations of my own, and came up with what turned out to be my favorite pecan pie ever.  Less dense and gooey than many, this one has almost a custardy texture, and while no pecan pie feels light when you eat it, this is as close to creamy as a pecan pie can get.  It's all due to the eggs--lots of 'em.  Plus, I use very, very little light corn syrup compared to most pecan pies, which often get their sweetness from loads of dark corn syrup.  The sweetness in this version comes instead from molasses and brown sugar, making the flavor deeper and more complex--more autumnal.  Molasses is a traditional sweetener in New England desserts like Indian pudding, so if you like that kind of fall treat, you will love this pie!  It is not health food, that's for sure, but a little sliver is all you need (okay maybe two slivers), topped with a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream--or even plain.

The Magpie's Pecan Pie

For the crust (adapted from Nick Malgieri's sweet dough recipe):

Note: I make a double crust recipe, using one half to make the crust and the other half to roll out and make little leaves for the top of the pie.  The recipe here is for one crust. If you'd like to decorate your pie with leaves or other cutouts, simply double it.

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1 large egg

I make this in a food processor, but you can make it by hand, too.

  • Combine the dry ingredients in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade.
  • Pulse 3 times at 1-second intervals.
  • Cut the butter into 1-T pieces and toss in work bowl.
  • Pulse about fifteen times until the mixture resembles corn meal.  
  • Add the egg to the work bowl and pulse until the dough forms a ball.  This only takes 10-15 seconds.
  • Scatter a little flour on your clean work surface.
  • Turn the dough out of the bowl and knead it 3 or 4 times quickly until it all holds together.  Do not overwork!
  • Press dough into a disk and sandwich it between two pieces of plastic wrap.  Press into a 6-inch circle, seal it with the wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Ingredients for the filling (adapted from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook):
5 large eggs
1 1/4 cups packed light-brown sugar
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup light corn syrup
1/3 cup unsulphured molasses
1 Tablespoon bourbon, dark rum, or rum flavoring
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 2/3 cups pecans, coarsely chopped, plus 1/3 cup whole pecan halves

To make the pie:
  • Set a rack at the lowest level of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.
  • Roll out the chilled crust and set in a 9-inch pie pan.  I use a Pyrex pan for this recipe.
  • Crimp the edges of the crust in your favorite decorative pattern.
  • Place the crust in the fridge until you're ready for it.
  • If you want to make decorative leaves for the top, roll out your second crust, cut the leaves with small leaf-shaped cookie cutters, and then place the leaves on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper.  Whisk one egg with a splash of milk or cream and brush this mixture over the leaves with a pastry brush.  Refrigerate the leaves until you're ready to use them.
  • In a medium bowl, make your filling by whisking together the eggs, brown sugar, corn syrup, molasses, bourbon or rum, vanilla, and salt.  Stir in the chopped pecans.
  • Take your prepared crust out of the fridge and pour the filling into it. 
  • Arrange pecan halves and decorative leaves (if you're using them) on the top of the filling.
  • Brush a little egg whisked with milk or cream over the crust edges for a gorgeous golden color.
  • Bake the pie for about 45 minutes, until the filling is well-set and puffed in the center.  I have a gas stove, so I find that I have to check the pie every 10-15 minutes, and turn it for even browning.  If the crust seems to be browning too quickly, you can always cover just the crust edges with some aluminum foil or, if you have one, a crust ring.
  • Cool on a pie rack.
  • This pie keeps fine at room temperature, loosely covered with foil, for about 3 days.

One more note: You'll have some crust leftover from making the leaves.  I re-roll this with my rolling pin into a rectangle, spread a little softened butter on it, and sprinkle it with cinnamon and demerara sugar.  Then I roll it up, jell-roll style.  I cut the roll into 1-inch pieces, brush each with egg, sprinkle a little more sugar on top, and pop them into the oven on a parchment-lined baking sheet for about 20 minutes.  They're great straight out of the oven or for breakfast the next day.  

Monday, October 1, 2012


Month of my dreams.  This is the time I climb inside my own head, write down what I discover in the corners, behind doors I'd nearly forgotten.  The month of black tea, blankets, thick books with well-thumbed edges.  The time for foragers, leaf gatherers, finders of treasure on the forest floor.  I could throw you a party, fellow searchers; strew the table with dried flowers; bake us spice cakes and dark berry tarts to stain our lips and fingertips.  

Let the winds blow.  Let the branches rattle and the frosts begin.  Open the old doors.  Let October in.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Chip Tease: On Paint Colors and the Coast

Note: Buckle up, my friends.  We're in for a long one.  I've been away for ages, I know, but mostly because we've been painting.  And painting.  And painting.  If you're as crazy about paint and colors as I am, or if you want some interesting links to things paint- or Maine-related, then read the text.  If you just want to see colors and pretty pictures, please feel free to skip my ramblings!

I have a longstanding obsession love affair with paint, as does Mr. Magpie, and we have been talking nonstop about colors for the cottage ever since the day we stood in its kitchen with our realtor and emailed in our offer.

Ultimately, I think every color we've chosen has been inspired by one thing: the coast.  More specifically, we've been inspired by two coasts, one we live on and one we've never even seen in person before.

Photo I took on the island three years ago.  On the right are mason jars filled with the sea glass we gathered that fall.

Ever since those four months that we spent on Peaks Island here in southern Maine three years ago, I have dreamed of a room painted the color of my favorite pieces of sea glass.  Benjamin Moore's Palladian Blue is just that color.  As soon as it went up on the walls of our living room, I knew it was right.  It shifts all day long in the changing light, from blue to green to both, combined with a touch of soft gray.  Sometimes it feels like the sky, other times like the shallows of a sandy beach.

Benjamin Moore Palladian Blue

Oh, I should mention that we've done all our walls, including the kitchen, in a matte finish using Benjamin Moore's Regal Select paints.  This paint is very durable and washable.  Yes, we've already had to wash some spots--moving is dirty business!  This paint is also incredibly easy to work with.

If you're a local reader, you might be interested to know that we've bought all our paint at Maine Paint Co. on Forest Avenue in Portland.  Working with a local store has been wonderful.  Folks there knew us by name after just a couple of visits, and they have been helpful with every question we've had, whether practical (Q: "When is that floor paint ever going to cure?"  A: "Fifteen days.  Be patient." And they were right.  It did take exactly fifteen days.) or aesthetic (Q: "Should we dare to paint our dining room a very dark and dramatic color?"  A: "Yes."  Emphatically.  And they were right.  Or more precisely, she was right.  Tanasia at Maine Paint has been a color consultant extraordinaire).  And this dining room color question leads me to the next chip: Newburg Green.

Benjamin Moore Newburg Green

There is a story behind this beautiful color, which, on our dining room walls reads sometimes as navy, sometimes as deep teal, and sometimes as nearly black.  Gasp.  Serious drama.  I am in love. Remember how I mentioned a coast we've never seen in person?  Over the summer, the Portland Museum of Art hosted an exhibition called The Draw of the Normandy Coast, featuring French and American artists of the 19th and 20th centuries who were inspired by the cliffs and ports of Normandy.  What impressed us upon first arriving at the show were the walls of the gallery themselves, which some brilliant people at the museum had painted a very deep marine blue.  Against this backdrop the Monets, Whistlers, and Dufys were stunning.  Again and again we found this blue in the paintings themselves--sometimes darker, sometimes lighter, but variations on deep, briny blue with hints of green.  Wouldn't we love a room in a color like this, we wondered.  Well, yes, but we hadn't found a house yet.  We were putting the cart well ahead of the horse.  In fact, the horse was still nowhere in sight.  

And then we found the house.  And then we thought, it's a little cottage.  It should be all light-filled rooms and whitewash and sea glass.  We forgot all about the Normandy coast.

But there sat our dining room in the darkest corner of the house with two windows, one of which lets in little light at the moment due to an overgrown (not for long) viburnum rubbing against its panes.  A dark room, indeed.  We decided to fight the darkness.  We talked with Tanasia.  She sent us home with lots of wonderful samples in light and bright colors.  None of them worked in the room.  We went back to the store.  We talked some more, and the ever-patient woman asked us questions, offered ideas, and listened to our color woes.       

And then it happened.  There on the table in the paint store was a copy of Maine Magazine.  I absentmindedly flipped through it while we chatted, and I was about to set it aside when it fell open to a page advertising the upcoming Winslow Homer exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art.  It's difficult to describe the buzz surrounding this exhibition.  Pretty much everyone I know can't wait to go; nor can we wait for the tours of his famous studio at Prout's Neck.

Winslow Homer, Eight Bells, 1886

But that's not what I was thinking about at the moment.  All I could see was blue.  That spot of blue in the break in the clouds.  And suddenly the Normandy coast was back.  And the Maine coast.  And I showed it to Todd, and we both knew.

So the color we chose is called Newburg Green, and there is green in there, but only to serve the blue, and like the ocean and sky along a northern coast, that blue is ever-shifting and changing with the day and the whims of the weather.  I can't wait to show you our dark dining room.

Benjamin Moore Mountain Peak White

Now onto trim and ceilings and doors and even the brick fireplace.  I love white for trim and doors, especially in a cottage, but I know how hard it can be to choose.  Too much yellow in it and it can feel dirty; too much blue and it feels cold, etc.  I think we simply must test it at various times of day against the other colors we plan to use in a room.  A white can look hideous at the store under their fluorescent lights but be a stunner in sunlight or under incandescents.  The opposite can be true, as well.  I've fallen in love at the store only to find once I get it home that the crisp white I thought was the color of sun-bleached seashells is actually the yellow of a chain smoker's fingernails.  

I wasn't expecting to like Mountain Peak White, but its sample was the one color that matched the bead board cupboards (be still my heart) in our kitchen, and I knew I wanted to paint the kitchen walls the same color as the cupboards to make the whole room light and bright and airy, so I went with it, and guess what?  In our house it looks clean and fresh without being blinding.  And it may have an alpine name, but it feels wonderfully seaside cottage-y, so it soon spread to the living room and beyond, until before we knew it, we were using it on trim (in semigloss) and ceilings (in pearl--after reading this post over at For the Love of a House, I don't think I will ever paint a ceiling with flat paint again) throughout the house to unify all the various colors.  In fact, we worked hard to find colors that we loved and that also resonated with the white as well as all the other colors in the house.  Against the Palladian Blue, Mountain Peak White feels soothing and creamy.

Dream Beach, Reid State Park, Gigi Thibodeau 2010

Have you ever been to a beach in Maine?  The sand here varies from beach to beach, depending, of course on the rocks found surrounding the beach.  We don't really have white sandy beaches; they tend more towards pale grays and grieges.  One of my favorite beaches is Reid State Park, where I spent countless hours in the waves as a kid.  I took a series of photos there a couple of years ago, and I find myself thinking often of the color of the sand at Reid.
Benjamin Moore Pashmina

And so, my study is in Pashmina, also by Benjamin Moore.  It's a warm greige that sometimes feels much grayer, depending on the time of day.  And it always reminds me of the beaches along this part of the Maine coast.

Farrow and Ball French Gray

And for his study, Todd (aka Mr. Magpie) choose Farrow and Ball's French Gray--another very Maine coast color with a touch of green in it.  In his study it is warm and rich like moss, and just perfect for a reading room.  I promise to give you a peek soon!  

I haven't mentioned yet that we've turned our entire upstairs into a sort of work/sleep/hangout space for the two of us.  When you climb the stairs, you enter a large room with skylights, which is paneled entirely in bead board that we've painted with the Mountain Peak White.  That's our bedroom.  Love. Serious love.  

The floors in there are hardwood, but the boards were in rough shape, and we have a limited budget, so we decided to paint them.  And what cottage is complete without at least one painted floor?  With the white walls and the navy blue bead board bed we're soon to have--after 22 years we have bought our first new bed--we decided to go with a beautiful neutral floor color: Thundercloud Gray.

Benjamin Moor Thundercloud Gray

On our floors it is even softer and lighter than this sample.  And while that Mountain Peak White sample looks very cream against the white of my blog, it looks much whiter and crisper beside this gray.  Have I ever told you that as much as I love a sunny day by the water, by far my favorite days along the coast of Maine look like this:

Thus Thundercloud Gray and also a lighter, even softer grey with a touch of violet:

Benjamin Moore Bunny Gray

Bunny Gray is in our front foyer downstairs, which is a very small, but light-filled space with arches leading into the dining and living rooms.  We knew we needed a very neutral color here to allow the eye to move comfortably from one room to the next, and Bunny Gray did the trick. We tried it in an interior hall as well, but without much natural light, it actually read as violet rather than gray.  In a room with lots of sunlight, it reads as a beautiful driftwood color that connects with all the other ocean colors.

Last but not least is the room we are finishing later today--the guest room.  When we moved in, this room was painted a deep burgundy red on the walls with a very orangey-gold ceiling.  Not at all cottage-y.  Not at all coastal.  Not at all us.  This room was the hardest for us to re-imagine.  It is on the first floor overlooking the garden, so we knew we wanted to connect it to all the beautiful greens right outside the windows.  The winner was a green that Benjamin Moore calls Spring Meadow, but it reminds me of the lichen that grows on the rocks near the ocean here in Maine.  

Benjamin Moore Spring Meadow

Hmm . . . I'm not happy with this sample.  It's nowhere near as lovely as the actual color, which is greener and richer than this.  One more reason I can't wait to show you the actual rooms, but I wanted to share some of our inspirations first.  I promise before and after photos (one room per post) soon!

Monday, September 3, 2012

On Teaspoons and the Blue Moon

I saw this weekend's blue moon rise through the skylight of our new bedroom as I rolled a fresh coat of paint over the ceiling's slope.  The radio was playing "Tiny Dancer," and I was belting out my best Elton John impersonation for Mr. Magpie, "Blue jean baby, L.A. lady, seamstress for the band . . . ."  My own jeans were spattered in shades of Mountain Peak White (BM), French Gray (F&B), and Palladian Blue (BM).  Every bone and muscle in my body ached from the past week* of painting, cleaning, hauling, weeding, and mowing.  My shoulder protested when I swiped the roller yet again over the ridges in the paint tray, but as I glanced back up at the skylight, the moon stared right back at me.  I shivered.  Suddenly it hit me: I was home. 

And then again yesterday as I alphabetized spice jars and sorted through teaspoons in the kitchen, I felt it.  All around me loomed the chaos of boxes and tables and chairs piled in precarious pyramids, yet I knew just where my favorite teaspoon was.  Somehow this knowledge translated to something bigger; I knew just where I was, too. It's atavistic, this sense--as primitive and visceral as the feeling of sharing a meal around a campfire.  

I've lived many places, but not all of them have felt this intensely like home, no matter how lovely the floors or sturdy the walls.  For a few years before we moved back to Portland, we lived in a beautiful loft in an old mill beside a canal.  It certainly looked like a home, but for us it had become a prison, simply because of the circumstances of our life at the time.  When we had the opportunity to move, we seized it with both hands.  We knew that meant renting an apartment for a couple of frugal years rather than living in our own home, but all that mattered to us was the chance to rebuild our lives, to start making a new home within ourselves.

I believe a place can save you, if you let it.  This city where we met a lifetime ago as students has always called to us to return.  When we finally were able to, we did so with our hearts and eyes and minds wide open to the changes this return would bring.  Have I ever told you Portland's city motto?  Resurgam, "I will rise again."  It refers to the four devastating fires the city has survived, especially the great fire of 1866, which led to the building of Portland's famously beautiful West End.  We have always found that motto fitting for our own lives, and I suspect we are not alone.  This city at the far northeastern edge of the US is a good place for starting over, for rebuilding, and for making an even better go of things a second, third, or fourth time around.

Over the past two years we have revisited our favorite haunts and discovered countless new ones, mentally bookmarking certain leafy neighborhoods as we went. And now we are here in one of our favorites of those neighborhoods, in this little house with its maples and white pines and its gardens full of hydrangeas, lilacs, and nasturtiums.  I know that like anything real and good, home is a feeling that grows over time, but it has already begun to take root, and I think this is the realization that made me shiver as I watched wisps of clouds drift past the moon's surface the other night.

I like that a blue moon is rare.  I like that we must remember to pause and look or else miss it and have to wait years for the next one.  The past couple of years have been a lesson in taking the time to pause and look.  This means noticing the moon rising as well as the sun setting.  It means listening for the sound of a fog horn on a damp night or watching out my window every morning for the baby herring gulls to take their first flight.  And it means searching through the piles of moving boxes for the one marked "silverware," so I can find my way home at last. 

*Note: We got to close on the house a week early, so we've been here since the 23rd.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Timeless Ticking

From Patina White

Certain colors, shapes, patterns, and styles have always inspired me.  For example, since I can remember, I have adored mattress ticking.  It's easy to love: simple navy blue and creamy white stripes on sturdy cotton.  It goes with so much and lasts for ages.  Then there are grain sacks.  Again with the blue and white stripes and the humble fabric that just gets better with each washing.

As we head towards our closing on the new house, Mr. Magpie and I have decided to go with timeless favorites like these as our inspiration for decorating.

From Country Homes and Interiors

The new house is a cottage, so we're keeping things simple.  I love the idea of translating the ticking pattern to a wall or even a staircase, like the one above.

From Country Living

And, of course, ticking looks beautiful mixed with other patterns on a bed.  I like it combined with natural linens.

From L.L. Bean

Right now, L.L. Bean has flannel sheets with ticking stripes.  Guess what we'll be sleeping on this winter?  ;)

Friday, August 3, 2012

Garden Inspiration

As you can imagine, my mind is overflowing with thoughts of flowers and gardens as we make preparations for moving to the new house at the end of the month.  I haul my camera and notebook everywhere I go, snapping shots and taking notes.

When I was a kid, my parents were avid gardeners, and they would always encourage me to dig and weed and plant along with them.  I remember the first year they gave me a small garden bed of my own.  I felt like Mary in The Secret Garden.  Of course, I planted pansies, because they looked like little people to me, and snapdragons and sweet peas.  These are still some of my favorites.

While I admire formal gardens and French parterres, I am a cottage gardener through and through, a happy practitioner of what my father-in-law calls "controlled chaos."  The more rambling and exuberant the blooms, the happier I am, and I even welcome stray wildflowers like Queen Anne's Lace to make their way into the beds.  

One of my favorite places to go for inspiration is the community garden at Gilsland farm in Falmouth.  The plots here are completely organic, and their gardeners understand the importance of planting natives like brown-eyed Susans.

I've been keeping a long list of favorites for the gardens at the new place.  Below is a list of a few of the many candidates.  Please feel free to add some of your favorite cottage garden favorites in the comments!

columbine (I plan to pilfer some from my mother's garden)
bee balm
brown-eyed Susans
foxgloves (I love growing them!)
Russian sage
roses--especially ramblers and climbers and rugosas

astilbe (for the many shady spots)
hostas, of course
wild ginger (thanks, Mum)
lady's mantle
coral bells

morning glories (the bluer the better)
day lilies

I could keep going!  These are just some of my favorites.  And you know there will be pansies and snapdragons and sweet peas tucked in, just like the old days.  For what better place to indulge one's nostalgia than in one's very own garden?  When I dig into the earth, the years fall away and I am small again, at eye level with the lilies of the valley in spring and the blue asters come fall.  And in mid-summer, I look up to see beneath the beautiful skirts of the coneflowers, towering above the rambling rock wall.  

The garden is where I go to feel ageless even as each season gives way to the next.