Monday, August 31, 2009

Eat cake

I have just returned from a three day workshop on Sculptural Cake Decorating. It was relaxing, tiring and wonderful all at the same time. The weekend came to an end with ten exhausted women carrying ten beautiful (and completely different) works of art to their cars. Hugs were shared, and some of us promised to keep in touch. Unfortunately for us, the structure of our cakes were made from styrofoam; not the lovely, buttery confection we had imagined, eating it for weeks afterwards until we finally exploded from too much sugary goodness....
We bonded over fake cake.

However, now that I have it home, sitting on the table, in my living room, I no longer want to eat it; I want it to live forever in my house; I will never get tired of it, no matter how dusty and faded it gets. It's a reminder of a pocket in time when I lost sight of who I was supposed to be, I immersed myself into whatever decided to dwell inside my head. For three days I didn't care about the outside world, or if anyone approved of what I was doing.

What made it all so special, for me, was how the center had managed to combine the artistic lifestyle with the classes that they held there. Where we stayed was quite basic; the house was over a hundred and fifty years old, the amenities were minimal, the atmosphere one of simplicity and comfort. We had no choice but to forget the outside world. We were in a very rural area with no televisions, no radio, definitely no internet service and very sporadic cell phone coverage. Everyone at the center was there to study or learn a craft, so the focus was on their art (not the latest debate on Government Healthcare). We had no choice but to be absorbed into our surroundings.

When we first arrived we were given hours of instruction on the art of fondant cakes, and how to decorate them. Then came time to start sketching our designs. I admit I was a little intimidated to have to design and present a cake (albeit styrofoam) to a woman who has singlehandedly taken the dessert world by storm (the delightful and tremendously talented Collette Peters). Fortunately, she made it very easy for us to like her, and I began to sketch my ideas out onto my notepad. I knew almost immediately the pattern and colors that I wanted to use. After she had consulted with each of us we were given the arduous task of carving the cakes out of styrofoam forms. It sounds easy, but honestly, I think it took me about three hours to get the measurements and the shapes right. At the end of day one I had three sawn off pyramids, all of graduating sizes. The following morning the fun part began, we started coloring and shaping the fondant to cover our "cakes".

During the next two days I want to believe that the cake became a reflection of me and my ideas. It is a colorful cake that has symmetry and whimsy, but it is also woefully imperfect. It may be an act of self-preservation, but I firmly believe that beauty and character lie within our imperfections.

As my cake evolved I needed to change a few things. The bottom layer was supposed to be purple but as I mixed the purple food coloring into the white fondant it started to turn blue. I added more and more purple and it just became more and more blue. Collette asked me why I had that puzzled expression on my face (my daughter lovingly calls this my twisty face) and I explained about the color problem. She said that for some reason the purple reacts with that brand of fondant and turns it blue. Adding red only muddied the color, so I had to change direction and redo all of my color schemes throughout the cake. I was happy that I was able to adapt so easily. The more philosophical part of my reminded me that this was perhaps just another teachable moment that can only happen when mistakes are made (but, let's not get too carried away, it was afterall, just a styrofoam cake, not the Mona Lisa).

Last night, after I returned home, I thought of some of the other women who were in the workshop. An architect who spent some time the week before planning her cake; she assembled it beautifully, so quickly and perfectly, with no gaps or structural issues. A young woman did an amazing cake that was a stack of classic horror stories. The top of the cake had a bloodied hand creeping out from the top. Alternately, she also did the sweetest, tiny cake that looked like it had just fallen out of a fairytale. And my dear friend, Debbie, who did a topsy turvy cake that was a glamorous study of pinks and purples with silver pearls in between.

Does this mean that given the freedom to do whatever we want, we begin to embrace who we really are inside? I think it does. All of these women were creative, and yet the cakes could not have been more varied. As we got to know them I could see why they did what they did and the relevance that the cake may have had in their lives.

These women had an opportunity to design whatever they wanted; in an environment with all of the tools that they could possibly need, with a teacher of world-class renown. When given all of these things most of us chose to demonstrate who we were in a very tangible way. All of them beautiful, but all of them different.

I think we should enjoy what makes us different. What makes us think or cry or giggle. Take the time to find out what these things are and make them a part of your life.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Does it count if I'm wearing Pajamas?

I have decided to spend this weekend trying to re-organize my home office. Like most rooms in my house it is small, barely 8 x 8 with a sloping attic ceiling. The size is irrelevant, because this magical room has a view of my garden and at this exact moment a deer and her two fawns are playing in the middle of the lawn. I'm not making it up, they really are; the fawns, still covered in spots, are so small that they can barely run to chase each other.

It never used to be an office; it was a computer room, a beige man-cave filled with old computer equipment and vinyl records. A few years ago I gradually started to reclaim the space. As I tried to figure out what I wanted I realized that my needs had to co-exist with my decorating ideas. I wanted an office, but it must be one that I enjoyed being in, otherwise what was the point?

When you walk into the room you are facing the window that overlooks the garden. The wall that it is on has a sloping ceiling, actually two; the middle of the wall (above the window) has a four foot flat area, that slopes down on either side to walls that are smaller than most, but normal for an old attic space.
I decided to try and make the room appear taller by painting the window wall, the ceiling and the slopes a soft butter cream. The rest is painted in a gorgeous blue/green color that I bought in the discard section of the local hardware store. I would love to say that this was effortless, but it wasn't. It took me several colors of paint, and many painted walls, to find the combination that made the room look as large as possible while also maximizing the natural light coming in from the window.

After I had painted I scrounged the house for things I could use as storage. I already had a filing cabinet and a desk but I knew I needed a place for my decorating supplies, color charts, books etc. I found an old white bookcase, a table lamp and a strange, collapsible shelf from years ago that had been stored in the basement. 

Armed with all this, I knew that my first priority was to put the desk in front of the window. The desk is quite old, laminated in an old fashioned duck egg blue with gold speckles and one of those lovely little shelves that pull out to the side to give you extra space. I rarely use the shelf, but it makes me happy to know that it is there, hidden, just in case. 

Once I had put the desk in front of the window the white bookcase went to the right of the window and the other, smaller one, went to the left hand wall with my printer on it. The metal filing cabinet easily disappeared with just a few magazines stacked on top of it (one day I will paint it, but I can't be bothered right now). The computer chair had to go so I brought up an old, wooden dining chair from the basement. I later decided I needed a chair in the corner of the room. Not quite sure why, as I wasn't expecting anyone, but it turns out to be very useful for when my daughter needs to chat, or my mum comes to visit. I was fortunate to have a wrought iron armchair in the garden that I didn't mind bringing inside. I spray painted the chair white, sanded it a little then recovered the plastic cushions with some vintage tablecloths.

Now, I know that this seems like a very vanity driven room, and I think, in hindsight, it is, but, I know myself well enough to know that how my surroundings look and feel reflects the way I function. I need to be organized, but I also need my home to inspire me, and I have to enjoy what I am looking at. The other side of it is purely practical; if everything is in it's place, and I like where I have put it, I am more likely to be able to find things and therefore stay motivated and on task.

On the mundane side I have tweaked things as I have gone along. I tend to accumulate a lot of coffee cups on my desk, which has led to a designated spot that I had to train myself to use (yes, it sounds daft but if you have ever spilled a cup of coffee on your desk you'll know what I mean). I can't do without coffee, so I had to adapt my work area accordingly to avoid future mishaps. I also decided to screw two vintage cup hooks into the side of the bookcase that faces to the right of my desk. These have binder clips hanging from them which hold bills and anything of importance that I need to attend to. This idea was simple but so successful as they are always in my sight and I can reach them easily. The bookshelf is from Ikea, and is made of melamine, so the hooks screwed in easily but securely. A noticeboard or a taut picture hook wire with clips could also be used.

Anyway, while I am thinking of binder clips, here are some other thoughts that may help anyone else who is lucky enough to be able to work from home:
  • Try and keep your office folders and books all of one type/style. Whether you are a contractor or a writer this will help to keep your work space visually clutter free. If you are not sure what to choose just use all black stationary, it's inexpensive and always looks good.
  • Think of unusual pieces of furniture to store your PC equipment on. Traditional computer tables and desks are often too big and unnecessary, don't overthink your solutions. Many electronic pieces are smaller than they used to be and you can easily store them on a small table or shelf that you may have already.
  • Add artwork to inspire and motivate you. Some people find words and quotes to be helpful.
  • Limit the amount of family photos and belongings that you have in your home office. I know as I write this that it sounds a bit callous,but I think that if you have the luxury of an office at home it is important to try and avoid blurring the lines. You will be less distracted and work more efficiently, if you and your family recognize that this is work and not just a parent playing on the computer.
  • Find your most productive time of day, and let that be your strength. Make phone calls and important decisions during that time.
  • Pretend that you work in a cubicle; at the end of each day tidy your desk and make a list for tomorrow.
  • Anything that you can stick a pin into is a good thing (this sounds funny when I read it back, but you know what I mean). I am a visual person, I need my notes, colors, inspirations out where I can see them. Do the same with lists, phone numbers, anything that you need or want to be reminded of. Hang it in plain sight. Even small sewing pins can attach pieces of paper to a wall with minimal damage.
  • Reorganize often. As your needs change so should your office space. Don't be afraid to admit it is no longer working, get in there and move things around.
  • And finally, put on your pajamas, grab a cup of coffee and get to work!