Lars Lerin watercolors: Bowled over

shorebirds in watercolor by Lars Lerin

Look very closely: shorebird by Lars Lerin

How often do you walk into an art exhibit and your breathing just … stops?

So it was, a couple weeks ago when I finally managed to fit a visit to this show into my typical Saturday-in-Minneapolis morning. “The Watercolor Worlds of Lars Lerin” was about to finish its run at The American Swedish Institute and I was determined to check it out, even if my plans on the way there included a 10-mile run,  a yoga class, and a change of clothes, but no intervening shower. I knew nothing about Mr. Lerin and don’t have any particular attachment to the watercolor medium. However, every show I’ve seen at ASI has been excellent, I had read that birds are featured in several of the works (ornithology is a growing interest for me), and special Lenten Swedish treats were available at the museum’s attached restaurant, FIKA. Lent was about to end; cardamom and sugar taunted me.

Lars Lerin light study


Two things struck me as I took a few steps into the exhibit: scale and intensity. Most of the works were huge – well over four by four feet, and some filled entire walls! Large scale allows paintings to be more like sculpture to me: more immersive and rewarding from up close and also from far away. I’ve rarely seen watercolor paintings that covered such a range of darker shades: I don’t think there was much water in this watercolor.

It was a surprise to achieve such success with light play in this medium, and also such fine detail. The photo at the start of this post is a small portion, maybe about 1/4 of the full painting, of a shoreline scene showing a variety of birds, mostly puffins.



The castle (Turnblad Mansion) that is ASI’s primary housing was a perfect location for this show, as the large windows and very detailed, reflective surfaces  (carved wood and brightly-painted kakelugns are in most rooms) therein added plenty of light as well as some cultural context to these pictures of nature, and of culture juxtaposed with nature. I really did need to remind myself to breathe a few times, while spending an hour or two enjoying this show. What a delight!

Other things I can share, as I haven’t posted much lately:

  • A few nights ago we cooked a delicious meal of mahi mahi with a vanilla-mango sauce. The tangy-sweet flavor in a main dish reminded us of some of the foods we enjoyed in our SE Asia trip, two years ago.
  • So does this Creamy Turmeric Smoothie. Add some Greek yogurt! Tasty.
  • This tasted nothing like Asia but it was similarly different and sweet: Tagliatelle with Caramelized Oranges and Almonds. It was part of our Easter dinner, along with some rotisserie chicken and a salad. It was featured on a recent episode of Splendid Table in which Lynne and Josh Bell together prepared a dish that may have been contemporary with some of the composers whose works he performs. It could be served as dessert (the recipe incorporates 2/3 cup of sugar!), at least if the meal didn’t already fill your guests up on some other form of simple sugar.
  • On the same evening, we watched Cloud Atlas on DVD. It’s a pretty high-concept movie, in a good way! A sort of melding of karma, apocalyptic imagining, and open-heartedness. I enjoyed the story, costuming work, and one of the Tom Hanks characters was particularly amusing. And to think, I was wondering what Tom Tykwer was up to, lately! I’d like to read the David Mitchell book, now as I’ve heard the sequencing may be a little different, and I’m curious about how it handles the continuity of characters/souls, so to speak. I’m still thinking about this film!
  • Steve had some fun tinkering with technology with Al, last evening to help make a mostly self-running greenhouse. Read about it here!
  • I’ve got a month and a half to go before my 25k trail race up on the North Shore (of Lake Superior). Training goes well; my long trail runs are up to 18k /2.5 hours. Yesterday I ran in some new Saucony Peregrine 6 shoes (thanks for the 20% off coupon, REI!): I love my Hokah Challenger trail shoes, but am apprehensive about using such stilts on the rugged Superior single track trails of the race. I’m happy to report that my feet and body felt good during the run and also today! Plus: argyle laces. ARGYLE LACES! And they stay tied.

Big shiny things on Russian tables

copper samovar

It could be a submarine for very tiny Beatles

I think I need a samovar.

This was my thought a few hours ago, when my teacup was empty for the second time since my movie started. Running upstairs 5 times during a 1.5 hour movie to get more tea isn’t helping me achieve the goal of keeping energy expenditure to a minimum. I’ve done everything else I can think of to try and get better: I’m on day 12 of this bugger of a head cold. I’ve decided to stay home from work and I am not even attempting to work remotely. I was parked in front of a TV that was playing a wonderful comedy: perhaps the laughter will be an extra healing bonus? It would be so much better to have a large container of tea-temperature water right down there with me next to the sofa.

Ah well. Hey, I’m on a losing-weight trend, this past week. Why not boost it with a few more steps? This was not my intention, truly. (I’ll pack a thermos next time.)

tombac samovar

A samovar made of tombac: an alloy of copper and zinc.

So, a few weeks ago I went to the Museum of Russian Art to check out a show of samovars. Earlier this fall, I went to a tea ceremony, during which another fellow tea fan mentioned the show. I’m not sure what it is about samovars, but they fascinate me, even the first ones I saw, which weren’t in any way attractive: I think I was at a conference and bad hotel coffee was being served from the huge chrome cylinders in a lobby and somewhere they were labeled as samovars: such an elegant, foreign-sounding word for such an ordinary-seeming hotel appliance. It rolls off the tongue more pleasurably than “coffee urn”.

So I planned my visit to the museum, wondering a little why a coffee maker would star in an art show in a Russian institution. I vaguely understood that Russians were historically a little more into tea.

So, I was right: tea is generally the hot drink of choice in Russia and has been for awhile. I had been misled by some earnest hotel interiors stylist. These objects were wonderful! A room full of finely-crafted shiny things, displayed smartly upon colorful, homey-looking fabrics, and also surrounded by various typical dining-room textiles, tea accoutrements, and paintings that included or featured a samovar. There was even a brick of tea, which looked a lot more brick than tea, but it was molded with a beautiful design. Cyrillic may not have the sexy curls that Arabic does, but it’s still more enjoyable to look at that the Roman alphabet.

samovar spigot of mother-of-pearl

One of my favorite spigots

While there I developed a fondness for something I previously never knew existed: samovar spigot designs. There was a shape common to several of them, a sort of fleur-de-lis, cut in half and flipped back upon itself. However, several designs deviated from this, either in a adorable direction (be it a head of a goat, a serpent/dragon, or a gnome-like creature), or into a more delicate direction, using mother-of-pearl.

Having a samovar on or near your kitchen table would be a great way to linger over conversation, or your on thoughts, and to slow this way too busy life down, just a little. Why doesn’t our culture have something similar?

I remember the strange burple of the plastic hot water kettle that my college first-year roommate had; I never had seen even one of those until then. However, it would boil, and you would turn it off ad make your tea/coffee/ramen. Stop, go, stop. These gleaming “self-cookers” contained a slow-burning fire that kept a decent amount of water at tea temperature. Some of them also had a tea-brewing component.

Russian tablecloth

Stitch detail on a tablecloth

Most of the items in the show were from the 19th century. There were a few examples that were made small as event souvenirs, as well as one “traveling” version which had legs that could be detached, for packing. As elegant as I think our JetBoil is, it’ll never seem as genteel as setting one of these beauties on a picnic table in a campground in a Wyoming Canyon. But would it fit into the boot of the Mini, alongside 75 pounds of china and a crystal punchbowl and our camping gear? Perhaps not. But then, when camping you often have the option of keeping a nice, big, slow campfire. Pretty much a samovar with out that complicated (or not) tea prep.

The show is open until January 24: it’s worth a trip over to South Minneapolis if you’re in the area. If you would like to see more of my photos (I did not shoot all of the samovars), here’s an online gallery.


Delacroix, goats, and enlightenment

Photo by @petekmuller/@prime_collective for @natgeo. A group of porters gather around a #fire in the #moorland region of Mount #Kenya. Many of the porters pictured here hail from the small, nearby village of #Naromuru. The men of Naromuru have worked as guides and porters on Mount Kenya for generations. With employment opportunities limited in the region, working with tourists and expeditions provides access to relatively steady income. A recent decline in #tourism to Kenya has strained the livelihoods of many of those who depend on the industry. During our many fireside conversations, porters expressed a dire hope that tourism soon returns to its previous levels. I hope so, too. I've lived in Kenya for the last three years and have never been more in awe of a country's bountiful beauty and diversity. With relative ease, one can bounce from savannas teeming with game, to pristine tropical beaches to extraordinary rivers rushing through mountain valleys. It's a marvelous place, indeed. #Africa #beauty #mountains #adventure #hiking #climbing #outdoors #economy

A photo posted by Pete Muller (@petekmuller) on

A few days ago I began writing this post and at the very top of it was to be a most excellent photo -to be fully attributed/embedded of course- that I had found on Instagram: a scene from a buzkashi game in Afghanistan. It was extraordinary in its detail, dynamic color palette, movement, and emotion, and the eastern locale was evocative as well : a perfect catalyst/inspiration for a post about my recent visit to the Delacroix show at Mia (the newly re-branded Minneapolis Institute of the Arts) last weekend.

I looked again today, eager to publish his post, and the photo in Instagram, which I think was from National Geographic, had disappeared. I can’t find it, nor can I find a suitable replacement for it if I search for something similar. So, the above photo will suffice – it’s just as good and also relates to my additional discovery for this post:

In my desperate search for the photo featuring a game requiring a dead goat (perhaps some of you will be thankful for the omission), I did learn something about how the National Geographic Instagram feed is managed. Over 100 photojournalists run it. They do a lot more than simply post amazing photos periodically: they post them  about once per hour, and they write captions with detailed stories about the locales from which they are shooting and posting. It’s fascinating stuff, period, but as photojournalism was a career direction I once aspired to, but abandoned: I love it.

As someone who has worked in content management, creative team management and in user experience design, I’d love to hear about the actual workflows and technology used to achieve it. I can visualize a few, though I can also visualize chaos.

Art, technology and media have a wonderful way of colliding and then revealing, sometimes.

The exhibit I checked out last weekend is titled “Delacroix’s Influence: The Rise of Modern Art from Cézanne to van Gogh”: it’s a collection of several of his paintings as well as several master works from other, later artists in which his influence is remarkable.

I don’t go to all the big shows that come through, though this one intrigued me. The tiny bit I learned about Delacroix and his era in my art-school art history course was too tiny: I didn’t know what was signature about his paintings, and I wanted to know, though I liked his paintings, which are usually big. I love big paintings, especially if there’s a lot of detail in them.

Here’s the real reason I went: a year or two ago, Mia did a survey of its members to help decide what to name this show. The name Mia ended up choosing seems awfully long to me; I recall there being a more clever or mysterious title in the running. It didn’t win but the survey did manage to pique my interest. So, I patiently waited.

Once there, I opted to use the audio tour, mostly because I didn’t feel like doing much reading as I moved through the exhibit. It was a free perk with our membership, as well. I expected the audio to offer something different than the placards, and it delivered! It offered insights from various curators, local artists and other people who have something to say about Delacroix’s effect on their lives. I listened to most of it, as I spent a fair amount of time with at least two thirds of the paintings.

My favorites were The Fanatics of Tangierthe Lion HuntCombat of the Giaour and the Pasha, and Manet’s Music in the Tuileries Gardens. (Note: I’d share them here but I wasn’t allowed to take photographs at the show.)

Here’s what I learned from my 90 or so minutes in the galleries:

  1. Delacroix’s precise –but faithful to movement and emotion more than to photographic detail– strokes appear to be a catalyst for the impressionist painting style/movement that followed his time. Or… viewed in retrospect his work is a clear transition.
  2. His use of intense color as a composition element and tool for stirring empathy in the viewer was novel – or at least unusual at the time – and timely.
  3. It’s easier to make decisions involving #2 and #3 if you’re not copying a scene directly from reality or a photograph. This fact is “painting 101” but it’s been a few years since I was in art school. Plus: photography is my preferred creative medium. What made this very obvious to me was learning (from the audio tour) that Delacroix never observed a lion hunt. But he painted one, or at least how he envisioned one.

Back to the photograph, even to the replacement one I chose and placed, atop this story: Bright colors, directional lines, brushstrokes that draw the eye closer to see fine detail, and gestures that infer and intensify emotion: these are some of many compositional tools used by a painter. These in particular, sometimes used to paint distinctively eastern scenes, are for me what makes a Delacroix painting. All of them appeared or were evoked in the buzkashi scene and also in the scene above, shot in Kenya.

Yay, art. And life. Happy Thanksgiving! Go see this terrific exhibit, if you’re in Minneapolis over the next month or two.

Random other stuff to share, from Thanksgiving week:

I watched a great movie at home, just before going to Mia. I recommend you see if if if your knowledge is minimal about what happened in Cambodia in the late 1970’s, and you’re curious: The Missing Picture. It was beautifully done and is heart-wrenching. Anyone who’s been reading my posts for a few years may still be waiting for my promised post about our trip in Cambodia. I’m still processing it and this film helps.

I recently finished reading Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. It’s a great bit of American history to learn about, and if you’re into adventure stories or think you already know a lot about how weird nature is, I recommend it.

We’ve been doing some cooking at home lately, and have found a few recipes worth sharing:

Yes, we ate tacos on Thanksgiving: we are so grateful for crazy ideas!