We have (touch wood!) had a mild Winter. We have certainly had days of perishing temperatures but no snow. No shoveling is a win for me. This has given us the opportunity to get out and exploring – even though my instinct is definitely to burrow in and hibernate. This weekend’s wanderings took us to Wilmington, Delaware, as its a place we have passed through a lot but never stopped.
The two offspring who were accompanying us vetoed a few suggestions so out first stop ended up being the Marian Coffin Gardens. These are the gardens of a 19th Century mansion named Gibraltar – because it is built on a rock – that is now a decaying ruin. That was actually the appeal of the place for me because the gardens are also largely abandoned, though maintained as a preserve and green space.
Marian Coffin, the landscape artist who designed the gardens, was an impressive person. Self-educated, she was one of only four women to be admitted to MIT in 1901. Despite those educational credentials, she was rejected by all of New York’s architectural firms. Not to be defeated, she founded her own business and made it a complete success. The terraced gardens of Gibraltar was a commission she undertook in 1916. They must have been gorgeous in their heyday but they have been deteriorating for 50 years so it was hard to imagine how splendid they must have looked. I do imagine, however, that we chose the worst time of year to visit because so much of the plant life is also dead or dormant.
Next stop was the Brandywine Zoo. This small zoo has free entry off-season and that was definitely a smart time to visit because it is pretty small. We had been concerned that the animals might all be cosied up in their indoor enclosures but actually the opposite was true and they were all out and moving around, enjoying the blue skies and sunshine despite the cold. Highlights were the red pandas, the serval, and the lemurs. The focus of our visit, however, was the capybara. We went to the zoo precisely because it has capybara and our 15 year old is obsessed with them.
We barely scratched the surface of Wilmington on this visit. In fact, we barely poked the surface. We will definitely need to go back for more exploration.
The long weekend of President’s Day afforded us the extra time and, therefore, the opportunity to take a day trip. We were a little limited in our space and time scope because our 17 year old was working and we are his transport to and from work. We, therefore, elected to visit a place not too far from home but where we have never been: Bethlehem and its historic steelworks. I had chosen the focus of our last trip (a cemetery, of course) so a bit of industrial history was my husband’s choice.
The Bethlehem steel works – previously iron works – were around from the mid-19th Century through to its gradual decline and final closure at the turn of this century. The visitor centre was closed to us as it was being used for a ticketed event (areas of the site are now a concert and event venue) so I did not have the same opportunity to learn any of the history of the company but honestly my brain doesn’t really absorb that kind of history anyway. In fact, I was reading information boards during the visit and immediately forgetting what I had just read.
I do, however, like abandoned structures and all of the textures of rust and flaking paint and grime. As such, I was happy just to walk around the site on the raised gantry-style walkway that mostly followed the old train tracks that would have brought the raw ingredients to the site back in the day.
Having found myself accidentally “collecting” the graves of American presidents, last year I decided to turn it into a purposeful assignment. Unlike my mission to visit each of the 50 united states, however, this is a much more relaxed and less driven bucket list. I am certain I will never visit all of the graves but it gives me inspiration for trips and gives me another excuse (as if I needed one) to explore cemeteries.
This presidential graves project is why my husband and I took a day trip to Princeton, New Jersey. The teenagers elected to stay home. Our destination was Princeton Cemetery, established in 1757 and filled with notable people, including almost all of the deceased presidents of Princeton University. Knowing these facts, my husband was anticipating a very long walk and an arduous task in finding the graves we were interested in. He was relieved, therefore, to see how compact the cemetery is and delighted when he saw there was a map available in a kiosk at the entrance. It took us no time at all to find the graves – just as well because it was perishingly cold.
The president who was the focus of my trip was Grover Cleveland, notable for being the only American president (thus far, at least) to have served two non-consecutive terms. Another tidbit about Cleveland is that, rather than being conscripted during the Civil War, he opted to pay a substitute to serve in his stead. Thankfully George Benninsky survived the conflict. He was also the only president (so far) to get married while in office. His wife and oldest daughter are buried alongside him. The latter – Ruth who died in childhood – was purportedly the inspiration for the Baby Ruth chocolate bar though timelines suggest it was actually named for the legendary baseball player, Babe Ruth.
Among the other historic graves we sought out, we visited the grave of Aaron Burr. Burr, of course, was a prominent participant in the Revolution, a Senator, and served as Vice President under Thomas Jefferson. Obviously nowadays he is most (in)famous for killing Alexander Hamilton during a duel. Possibly more scandalous, however, was his involvement in a complicated conspiracy that led to him being tried and acquitted of treason.
I also visited the grave of John Witherspoon. Like me, he was born in Scotland and emigrated to America well into adulthood. Witherspoon was a president of Princeton but he is probably more notable as being a Founding Father and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.
After our cemetery wanderings, a short walk took us to the centre of the campus of Princeton University. I have never visited an Ivy League university before so perhaps this will be the start of another collection – but probably not. Talking of which, I had never actually thought to look into the origins of the term “Ivy League”. I had assumed it was something to do with the progeny of colonial families being in with the roots, maybe something about social climbing being like ivy on walls, or maybe just a reference to the very old buildings of such colleges being covered in ivy. Turns out it is because of the tradition of each graduating class planting ivy around the institution’s buildings.
I enjoyed wandering around all the buildings because I just like architecture (just as appreciation, not as one of the many things I research and read about). The focal building of our excursion, however, was Nassau Hall. It was built in 1756 making it the oldest of the University’s buildings and, at the time, the largest building in the entire of New Jersey. When the Congress of Confederation had to leave Philadelphia in 1783, they reconvened in Nassau Hall and that made it the nation’s Capitol for four months. I had read that it was possible to still see the pock-marks of canon strikes that the building received during the Battle of Princeton but between all the ivy and my eyesight I was unable to spot any signs of damage.
The majority of buildings were closed to visitors because of it being a federal holiday (Martin Luther King Jr Day) but we were able to get out of the biting cold by entering the Chapel. The word “chapel” led me to believe it would be a more modest building but it was vast enough to be a cathedral. The light was hitting the windows beautifully, highlighting both the stained glass and dappling the walls with wonderful colours. It was a very pleasant space full of wonderfully crafted stone- and woodwork.
We would both like to return to Princeton as it looks to be an interesting town with further opportunities for exploration – but with milder temperatures.
Our other Winter break trip was to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Our last visit was in 2015 so it was time for a return and all four boys were agreeable to coming on this outing.
We made an effort to visit the galleries we had either missed or only flitted through in our previous visit. I was surprised by how into medieval and renaissance art the boys were so we spent a lot of time in the early European art section. There were entire furnished rooms from historic buildings and things like church screens on display but later we discovered that there were entire chunks of ecclesiastical architecture, including a whole cloister, and a Japanese temple from the 14th Century. How had we managed to miss such massive exhibits on our previous visit?
I don’t think it is necessary for me to write at any length about our visit. We wandered around, appreciated works of art from diverse cultures, a wide variety of periods, and different media, and had some good quality discussions along the way. Everyone got to see something that was a highlight for them – such as my 17 year old seeing one of Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings – and we did not push everyone beyond their tolerance by insisting that we visit every single nook and cranny of the museum.
When the boys were younger, we always used to keep them occupied and engaged in museums by giving them pencil and paper and encouraging them to draw; once they got older, however, we evolved a new family challenge: each person has to find an exhibit that they try to replicate through mime or tableau. I will, therefore, close this blog post with some of our attempts from this trip.
Given our desire to keep Winter break low-key and low-demand, we decided to curtail our usual bent for travel and exploration and instead play at being tourists in our own area. Despite having lived here for 9 years now, I had still never been to Independence Hall. We decided, therefore, to head into the city for a visit there.
Although I am generally very interested in history, the Revolutionary era is not one that captures my imagination. It definitely feels more like a homework assignment or chore to absorb that learning. I think it is because so much of that era is dominated by military history which is very much not my jam. However, the importance of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to American society and culture means that I really did want to visit Independence Hall. I was accompanied by my husband and our oldest and youngest sons.
The Ranger for our tour group did a great job of providing an accessible precis of the relevant history, focusing on the more engaging highlights and peppering in some jokes about the nature of group assignments. It was also a very brief tour, which was welcome to our sons. Now I can check Independence Hall off my list!
My husband suggested that we take a walk down to the 9th Street Market area. I liked the idea of having a good walk and I needed to restock on vegetables post-Christmas so that seemed like as good a destination as any. My oldest son was bemused by my excitement when I was able to buy parsnips, massive leeks, and fresh figs.
Of course, I should have known that my husband had an ulterior motive when he suggested 9th Street because what he was actually aiming for was cheesesteaks. I don’t eat meat so this was of zero interest to me. The boys, however, joined their dad in ordering and munching cheesesteaks. Although Pat’s is one of the famous Philly purveyors and they did enjoy the food, they all agreed that they have had better cheesesteaks elsewhere.
City murals and celebrations of cheese are much more my thing.
Justified by the fact I was very burned out and running on empty, I spent most of Winter break in hibernation mode. I decided to participate in a manageable festive art challenge in order to force me to make time for art at least every couple of days. The one I opted for was Yuletide Witches created by Heather Mahler. The magical theme appealed to me.
The first prompt was “Ice Witch” and I think I started pretty strong with my illustration. She maybe looks a bit more like a pixie or some such than a witch but I was pleased with how the ice crown turned out.
The second prompt was “Ghost Witch” and I was disappointed by my efforts. I got carried away with all the shroud wrappings so the effect is much more mummy than witch and I am not happy with the face either. The good thing about an art challenge is there is always another prompt waiting and the opportunity for improvement.
I was much happier with my “Bow Witch”. She turned out much closer to the vision I had in my head. Since that prompt was for Christmas Day, I opted for traditional Christmas colours of red, green, and gold – not a combination I would usually use – and I think it is quite effective in this context.
The next prompt was “Reindeer Witch” and I decided to make her a bit more spooky. I used a photo reference for the reindeer skull but – true to form – I got the proportions all wrong. I think visually it still works well as a headpiece and overall I am pleased with how this drawing turned out.
The penultimate Yuletide Witch was a “Dried Fruit Witch” and I had actually been dreading that prompt because I had zero inspiration and no idea what I was going to draw when I put pencil to paper. Then I thought of all of those garlands of dried citrus fruit and how they could mirror chunky necklaces and that led me to think of cranberries as beads and that whole aesthetic of bold jewellery made me think of Endora from ‘Bewitched’ and gave me the vibe for the witch herself. And so the witch drawing I had most been dreading turned out to be the one I enjoyed drawing most.
The final witch was a “Wishing Star Witch” and I decided to challenge myself to create a sense of glowing – something I knew I would struggle with. I think I made some progress in that area with this illustration.
So those are my Yuletide Witches. I enjoyed working on them and having some quiet time at my art table every couple of days. They have photographed horribly because of the grey, dull light but the editing adjustments have them close enough to reality for sharing purposes.
I have been sick for over a week now. I am negative for all the big ticket items. I just have several lower level viruses combining into an overall debilitating grot. The doctor was befuddled by how I had fallen prey to so many bugs at once until he learned I was a preschool teacher. Apart from Covid – when I was asymptomatic – I have not been sick at all since 2019 so it is also fair to say that my immune system is weedy and pathetic and really has not rallied the defences at all. It’s an incredibly busy and demanding time of year so being sick right now is also a source of stress and frustration. Overall, I am feeling pretty miserable.
All of which preamble is to explain why I yet again turned to a Draw This In Your Style challenge for my art time. Free time is pretty paltry right now, as I am sure it is for most folks, so it was convenient for that reason as well as the fact that I am just feeling pretty cruddy. I opted for a challenge set by Inknes due to its very simple colour palette and because I liked the mythological and heraldic vibe to her original. I have found that I really like drawing weirdo wolves. I like drawing the body shapes and also all of the linework for the hair. I enjoyed working on this piece and it was a welcome distraction from feeling sorry for myself and my rubbish immune system.
‘Tis the season for me to have very little spare time. However, over the course of a few days, I managed to respond to a Draw This In Your Style challenge. The Ivy Foxes challenge was set by an artist who goes by Vossanova on Instagram and I thought it would be a fun experiment for me to try and draw them since their style is so distinctive and very different from my own and because animals aren’t a frequent subject of mine. I am not satisfied with the end result because there is such a massive gap between the image I had in my head and what appeared on paper – turns out I am not very adept at drawing foxes – but I found it very relaxing to draw all of that ivy – hence I got very carried away with it. I had fun drawing it and really that is the most important thing.
I had a birthday recently and managed to double-dip with celebrations since the actual fell on a weekend and I received my gift the following weekend.
On my actual birthday, we took a day trip to Frenchtown, New Jersey. I had read several times that Frenchtown is New Jersey’s most appealing/quaint/cute town so I have had it on my list to visit for a while. I get to impose trips on my family without their complaints or protestations twice a year: Mother’s Day and my birthday. My original plan had been to visit Frenchtown for the Mother’s Day trip but – for one reason or another – that outing kept getting postponed until it collided with my birthday 6 months later. It, therefore, became my birthday trip (and now I am contemplating which historic cemetery will be the destination for the second “no moans” trip I am owed.)
It was a perfect day for aimlessly meandering, golden Autumn sunshine and the perfect temperature, so we took our time wandering around the streets. We popped into several stores, whatever grabbed our attention. My 17 year old is a magpie whose eye is always drawn to shiny, sparkly things (one of the few things he has inherited from me) so we spent a lot of time in a gem store. My 15 year old, meanwhile, loved a hip clothing store but mostly because it had a vintage pinball machine that the store owner encouraged him to play. And the 13 year old predictably loved a candy store. I meanwhile loved spending time in an independent book store and making selections in an artisan cheese shop.
All of the stores are clustered around one main street so it did not take us long to complete our pootling around the stores. We, therefore, decided to get a late lunch / early dinner at a little Mexican place. The food was tasty but unfortunately the service was terrible but I cannot complain since any meal I did not have to cook is appreciated, especially on my birthday.
My birthday gift from my husband and kids was a surprise trip to New York to see a show. Therefore, this past weekend, my husband and I took the train into Manhattan. Despite the train being an all-stopper (and in rolling stock probably as old as I am) we arrived mid-morning so we had time to do some other things before heading to the theatre. First up, since we were right next door, was Moynihan Train Hall. I have zero interest in trains or mass transit beyond their transportation purpose so this was of very little interest to me. However, Mr Pict had been involved in the project to transform the old Post Office building into an extension of Penn Station so he was keen to see the completed building with his own two eyes.
As someone who likes the Harry Potter books and movies (November is our month for watching all of the movies as a family), I was interested to visit the store. I had heard about long lines to enter the store but that must have been when it first opened because we just walked in and it really wasn’t that busy. My only plan was to browse the store so we did not spend time even investigating any of the VR experiences or making purchases from the Butterbeer bar. Of course there was merch galore to look at but what I was really keen to see for myself was the design of the store. I was really impressed by how much thought had gone into creating a flow around what is actually a reasonably compact space and the way in which different sections were themed and structured as their own mini experiences. There were also fun details like mandrakes and dirigible plums dangling from the ceiling and a giant Nagini slithering between Ministry of Magic tiles.
The Harry Potter store is just south of the Flatiron building so from there we just had to walk about 26 blocks up Broadway in order to get to the theatre. We were going to see a matinee performance of Hadestown at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Despite having visited NYC several times, this was my first ever experience of seeing a show on Broadway. I was very excited! My husband had picked Hadestown because I am a fan of Anais Mitchell’s music and have been listening to songs from the concept album for over a decade. The show was fantastic and the performances were excellent. It was an amazing experience and I am thrilled to have finally seen a musical on Broadway.
It was getting dark when we left the theatre so we took a stroll from the Times Square area over to the Rockerfeller Center to see the lights and window shop and people watch. We had not eaten all day so were pretty famished by this juncture so we found a Mexican restaurant tucked away on a side street for dinner. It was very loud but the food was delicious, the prices were right, and the service was excellent so it was just the ticket. We then we just had to schlep all the way back to Penn Station and take the NJT back to Trenton and, from there, drive home. It made for a long day but I had a fabulous time and I very much appreciated my birthday trip. Mr Pict did an amazing job planning my surprise trip. He’s a keeper.
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