The Room of One’s Own

  So, here I am in Giverny. I can give you some quick peeks at what I’m up to here before I return you to the blog post I pre-loaded before I left the USA (I knew that blogging from The Road would be more technologically spiffy than I could handle).

So far, I know that there are two ways to see Monet’s garden at Giverny. You can take it in at ground level…



…or you can climb a hill and see it from waaaaay above. Either way…




…it’s quite a sight.

It’s been chilly here in Normandy, that is when the sun isn’t shining and warming you to your tootsies — those clouds can turn a refreshing Spring breeze into a frigid bone-chilling gust. Some people are even wearing Winter coats but I get by very well with my Seattle fleece jacket. Yes, Giverny is a tourist trap, but not a TOTAL tourist trap. I stayed for my first two nights at a delightful B&B but had to move to the town’s only hotel (a large group of Russians were booked for arrival at the B&B) and while I had the company of a chow named Toddy at the B&B when I took my well deserved Friday evening aperitif…


…there are no such furry ears at the hotel.

You know I will tell you in full all about Giverny when I get back to my desk on Long Island and off this f*#€€**!  iPad, but you already know that while my body might be in France (actually, it’s in Marrakech at this point) my heart is still in my little workroom back home.


This is my butcher-block desk (it’s really only an old kitchen table my sister gave me 20 years ago)  which is situated in front of two south-facing windows. The most important feature of this set up is the chair: I sit in a child’s chair, the seat of which is only 13 inches above the floor. This puts me at just above eye-level with the top of my desk, which is very important for the close-up, miniature-sized painting I do.

Before I started to illustrate my books, this set up was very familiar to me from my years as the watch and clock expert at Christie’s auction house (my job before I got promoted to Faberge). Horologists also work on itty bitty bits (watch parts are veeeeeeeerrrrrryyyyy small) :




So watchmakers sit at specially-made furniture that has a desk top that is about a foot higher than a normal table:



But since I don’t have a watchmaker’s desk — I just have an old kitchen table — I have lowered my seat to make like an horologist when I paint.

That photograph of my desk shows me working on a garden illustration from my Key West photo album, which I will show you at the end of this post.Before I go further, I must tell you that while I was photographing the 4 corners of my workroom I was moving Coco, in her cat bed on her chair in the middle of the room, to keep her out of camera range…and she was so much a part of this post that I totally forgot to take a photo of HER and now I’m in France and can’t do nothin about it.

I keep my photo albums and diaries and notebooks filed away in my closet:


I started a special Garden Book book shelf in there for handy reference. I also have loads of loose photos, filed in shoeboxes in a special  blue bookcase:


Those binders that you see on top of my photo/shoe boxes are the various  Books-in-Progress of original art work that (so far) doen’t have a home in a published book. Those binders are too tall to fit in any regular bookcase, so I found a darling little bedside bookcase that I turned on its side and stacked on top of my sweet little blue bookcase. I have a large bulletin board on the left. Joan Rivers has very good advice about growing old: Never keep photos of your younger self on display around the house…but I have two 8″ x 10″ black and white photos of me on my wall, from my Peace Corps days, because in my mind I’m still 26. I have two more bookcases stacked up to the right, where I keep tea cups and birds’ nests … on the wall in the background there is a map of a road trip through New England that I painted many moons ago. I will have more to say about my love of making hand-made maps in a bit.

But this is my favorite wall, the Wall of Feathers:


Most of these  feathers are treasures that I have found over the years, some of them are gifts from my Dear Readers, all of them represent to me my idea of wealth…

…the same way that Top Cat’s idea of rich is this:


This is firewood that Top Cat chopped himself, and why he has a soft spot for Hurricane Sandy as an outstanding delivery system for excellent quality raw material for his wood chopping hobby. Top Cat loves to chop wood.

It was while I was snapping photos of my workroom for this tour that I came upon some old art projects that I haven’t looked at in years:


I have a box full of old embroidery projects — before I ever painted a garden, I used to sew them all the time. I put a few of my embroidered gardens in my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam:



If you’ll notice, each of those gardens has a black and white tuxedo cat in them; that’s because for many years I put my sweet cat Woody Robinson in every garden I sewed. He was even in this one (on the right):


Only, in order to see him you have to see the entire garden:


I ripped out all the stitches in that gate that appears at the bottom of this piece because it is not the real gate to this garden and after I’d sewn it I felt dishonest for putting in an imaginary structure. This is actually the walled herb garden of the Geffrye Museum in London and you gain access to it through the door that I painted on page 78 (of Wanderers, if you’re reading along, above).

But there’s plenty more embroidered gardens where those came from:P1150642





And then there is this:


That’s a tea bag over by Florida’s Fountain of Youth, for scale. This is the one and only “quilt” I ever made, for a quilting contest in 1992. The theme was America, if I remember correctly, and I love to make maps so this was right up my alley. It was a national competition and I won a third place in Mixed Media and this “quilt” was published in a national magazine. Country Home, I believe.

In this map “quilt” of America I put ll the various historical / ethnic references that I though were indicative of the various regions. In Middle America I put a baseball diamond, to represent The Field of Dreams in the approx. area of Iowa. For Texas and the Southwest I did Mexican-style reverse appliqué and I embroidered Central American creatures and then I did some Navajo spirits and a Plains Indian head dress. For the West Coast I put a Japanese bridge with cherry blossom plus a nifty Chinese dragon…



…which I have to say is the best thing I ever embroidered. In the Ohio Valley / Pennsylvania / Original 13 Colonies area I put an early American sampler-style thing:


Yes, that’s a shamrock in the Carolinas.

In New England I did an appliqué cornucopia, to represent the first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts colony:


To represent  African Americans I did West Africa embroidery and put in some Zulu shields:


I had never done any kind of appliqué before I did this “quilt” and so I am particularly proud of this appliqué eagle that fills the Great Pacific Great NorthWest:


This “quilt” is 100% sewn by hand. Not one stitch was done on a sewing machine. I even appliquéd the entire map by hand, sewing it onto a backing with a stitch that I invented (it’s like a buttonhole stitch, kid of) and then I stuffed it with polyester fill to make it “quilty”. People used to look at my stitching and say that they were so perfect that it looked like a machine did it, and they meant it as a compliment.

I’ll admit it: I used to be a great embroiderer. But oh lordy, it used to take weeks and months to do one single garden and I used to get cramps in my hand from holding onto a needle for 10 hours at a time, so I gave it up. And now I paint.

And now, after almost nine years of painting, I am getting to a level where most of my watercolors don’t stink (I said most: I hope you saw last week’s post where I show how easy it is for me, still, to paint something putrid.)

Here’s my Watercolor of the Week, a picture of Key West that I did right before I left for my Great Adventure in Giverny and Etc. (it’s the work-in-progress that you can see in the photo, above, of my desk with the itty bitty child’s chair):


I’ll be back on home turf next week, blogging more or less “live”, bringing you the sights from Paris, Giverny, and Marrakech. See you then!


17 Comments, RSS

  1. It is a surprise to see how low you makes perfect sense..Your spot is just right in front of the windows..

    Sounds like you are having a busy..creative time..
    I want to be a tourist in that trap:) Giverny ..would be fun for me to see and photo.
    You have loads of material there for future projects.
    Enchanted with the embroidery..
    I love the French red cross stitch..and a stocking and pillow my very first manager gave me..that she made..
    Never been a cross stitcher..I am an embroiderer too:)

    Needlepoint never excited me..until a world of personalized stockings opened up to me..
    Then I was hooked..for that purpose:)Adding beads and names and little jewelry heirlooms..
    But I don’t think I was ever as good as you as mine were all kits.Over 70..through the yrs..but kits.
    Yours are precious and personal.
    Love the missing gate..I would never think to take out the stitches..but your honesty struck a note with me..:)
    I would probably have painted on a small piece of fabric..and stitched it on the gate..I don’t know what ..:)Or stitched on the patch..
    and yet..I prefer what you did.
    You are much more show it or say it as it is..That’s my next life..:)
    The Key West house is perfect.The details..

    Everyone’s treasures are different..his pile of wood is wealth..
    Some of mine are quite ridiculous but they are treasures.

  2. Here in Maine a good woodpile in the backyard = security. I love to chop wood too.

    LOVE your embroidery gardens so much. Those two Micronations pages in WWCTR are among my very favorites in the whole book. It’s a treat to see your other pieces.

    Safe travels home.

  3. Patricia

    Love Fridays because of your posts (okay, I like Fridays just for themselves also). Love the studio tour, your teeny chair, your embroideries, your prize winning quilt (!) and your pile of birdnests. After heavily pruning some overgrown trees in the front garden, we found a teensy hummingbird nest (empty, thankfully) attached to some twigs while cleaning up. It’s about golf ball size; made of dryer lint and camoflaged with bark on the outside. And has a place of honor on our bookshelves…

  4. Carol

    I love the English ‘ducks on the walls’ touch above your book case. (From Wanderers Cease to Roam!)
    What a beautiful quilt. I am going to see if I can find that issue of Country Home!
    You are really, truly, completely an ARTIST!!
    Hope you are having a wonderful time – hurry home, Penelope, Cocoa, Taffy, etc. AND all of us are waiting for you!!

  5. Jeannie

    My father obsessed about firewood. We would go out in a snow storm to gather more – for the future! Wood had to be a certain type (alder, cedar, fir), it had to age to burn “clean”, and it had to be cut and stacked a certain way. 🙂 I also sit in low chairs. I like to be close to my work and I am too lazy to go to the ophthamologist for new glasses. I adore your stitched gardens. I love to embroider, but I detest pre-printed cloth. It is like following a recipe to cook, what fun is that? Have a fantastic time on your trip! I loved the photo from above Giverny. I had never seen it from that perspective. Safe travels!

  6. we are so damn lucky you share! i love the world wind posts you share taking us here and there and everywhere, it is always fascinating to me~

    your embroidery is wonderful, such clever little ideas you come up with, you are just a true artist in multimedias. i adore your garden stitchery, but your talents shine on the map, such interesting ways to represents the areas, again, your creativity abounds.

    i must say don’t trash needlepointers please, it too can be just as endearing as your homemade embroidery creations… in college i was in an art glass and decided to do a needlepoint for a main project, the teacher told me flat out he wouldn’t accept it as art, i said just wait and see… i got an A and he apologized for not being more open minded 😉

    envious of all your garden travels, but know we will all be handsomely rewarded when the damn book comes out, safe travels to you and thanks for sharing, its a pleasure to see your world~

  7. Oh, my, there is way too much to love in this — I love your studio area — especially that southern light — and the whole idea that you work so low. I never thought of that — I hope you have a great masseuse — or that Top Cat has magic fingers!

    Giverny — yes, not too touristy a trap — did you see the cemetery? Incredibly interesting, but then I have this French cemetery thing. What a beautiful time of year to see it. Heavy sigh.

    I’ve never had the patience for embroidery, but your work is beautiful and detailed. And I could comment on every line but that would be so over the top so just continue a lovely journey and thanks for feeding my soul with pretty today!

  8. Susie

    Super super super. Everything, including Top Cat’s wood pile!
    One comment….your “Fall” quilt has fabric hills, front right and front left. I had several yards of that fabric and used it as a border for a custom quit I made and sold, waaaay back when. I’m too impatient to do hand quilting, it was ALL machine done.
    Thank you for letting us in your room….sigh…..the memories that little chair brings up, kindergarten in 1961.

  9. Thanks for the peek into your studio!! I am amazed, impressed and awed by the amount of TINY and wonderfully intricate things you have managed to create over the years.

  10. Eileen

    Did you know that Granma Moses gave up embroidery and started painting for the same reason you did? Worked out pretty well for her too!

  11. Barb Hutchisson

    Thank you so much for the fabulous embroidery – I have wanted more ever since that delightful taste in Wanderers (my computer shut down in the middle of my prev. comment…)Gertrude Jekyll also did embroidery as you probably know. You will likely get even more followers from England, should they come upon this post. You combination of talents is very very inspiring – all my favorite subjects!! Thank you for all the time you put into these posts – I am renewed after missing a couple weeks.

  12. Judy Jennings

    Are any of these beautiful gardens created in wool? I can’t tell. They are exquisite. Embroidery is such a beautiful OLDE skill. Always wished I could have lived in a much earlier age in which ladies did fine needlework and watercolors as their main pursuits. Your creations in both medias are so lovely…

  13. Joan

    Lovely work in all media, Vivian. All the embroidery work is fabulous. I have done embroidery from early years up to the present. Later work was rework when it enjoyed a lively comeback in the late 90’s. I had scads of patterns that were very much loved from the 1930’s…all the things I made I gave away without taking photos…

    I used to quilt, i couldn’t stand to make large quilts after about 5 years, so I switched to miniatures…the smallest I made was an old pattern called Hole in the Barn Door…each block was 1 inch square! It measured 5X7 and sold at a fund raiser auction for $90…I was stunned.

    Now I knit and crochet a bit when the mood strikes me. I do love hand work and feel agitated if I don’t have something to work on.

  14. janet bellusci

    once again, you blow my mind with your talents! what a wonderful window into the world of vivian, seeing your workspace and storage solutions ~ so clever, and such a treat for your readers!

    all i could think of when i saw the watchmakers work areas was “wow, their backs are being kept so straight while they work ~ how excellent!”

    your work with fabric and embroidery is really incredible, and i am so blown out by what you were doing “back in the day” ~ really stunning pieces! and how fun that woody robinson was incorporated into those pieces. such a great way to immortalize him.

    my husband was a lover of wood-chopping, too! before he passed, he chopped and stacked what would turn out to be around four years of wood for this girl at the farm!

    thank you for sharing, vivian. i always learn so much and enjoy what you present.

  15. Laura

    Watercolor and all manner of fiber arts, once sequestered as “feminine arts” in days of yore ( I love to say “yore”) have once again been validated here as truly skillful, conceptual and creative fine arts. I teach my high school students how to embroider their sketches from observation as part of this new century’s return to American Arts & Crafts. ( oh, the word “crafts” is still troublesome to me) Thank you for, yet again, more examples to share with my students.

  16. I can’t get over the quilts ! You could do a few weeks of blogs by showing us all the quilts and stitching art you’ve done.
    Enough for a book, maybe? naaa. Limited audience.
    Thanks for the Vivian’s eye look at France. I, too, never saw Giverny from nearby hillside.

    And the chair! No wonder you can do the teeny tiny paintings and never lean over for hours. It would ruin your back.
    Welcome home in a few days. Looking forward to next Friday.

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