Locus Amoenus V: Geisenheim

Locus Amoenus, Latin: the lovely or pleasing place. A common trope in Ancient Roman literature, usually a garden or woodland–a spot of inherent safety, comfort, and striking beauty. The concept features in works by authors as early as Homer, and it was reveled in by the later pastoral poets before being passed on to the writers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Locus amoenus is a place to retreat to, often with overtones of Elysium on earth.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApril 2, 2017 This time, the locus amoenus I am writing about isn’t my own, or not directly at least. It’s Jonathan’s–his tiny apartment in Geisenheim, where he studies viticulture and has lived on and off for the last seven years. In the time that I have known him, I’ve come to love the place, too. Now, he is beginning the long process of tearing it all apart, because he’s going to be leaving everything at the end of the summer and moving to California to be with me as I work towards my degree. It’s all thrilling, of course, but difficult: How does one fit 30 years of life into a few suitcases and set off for the other side of world? 

These sorts of processes are harder for Jonathan than they are for me. I love packed bookshelves and art on the walls, but a part of me has always been equally thrilled by minimalism. It’s exciting, and easy, for me to pare down everything to a suitcase, to give away and leave behind, and just go without it all.

Jonathan, however, is a materialist in the richest sense of the word. He revels in the feel and shape and smell of the physical, in beautiful and useful things, in collecting and saving and creating. His apartment is packed with stories as told by objects, full of leather and paper and wood and green growing plants. There is a record player, and a tiny glass still for making gin. There is a dark wood cabinet that folds open to reveal a collection of matching tumblers and wine glasses. There are small wooden drawers full of vials of seeds, rainbow-colored tin, pocket knives, sealing wax. There are boxes and boxes of old letters and photographs.

All of these things are a part of him, and I love him for it. But they all make the leave-taking so much harder. Almost none of this will make it to California, at least not at first. So I took my camera during my last visit to try to capture a bit of it. I wanted to try to get the feel of this lovely place onto film before he, or actually we, pack up, leave all this, and start something new.

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Travelogue LXVII: Rheingau

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarch 22, 2017 I’m back in Germany for just a couple bittersweet weeks, before the start of the new semester in California. I wanted to wait for a sunny day to climb into the vineyards on the Rhine to take pictures like the ones I took almost exactly 13 months ago, but waiting for clear weather in Germany in spring can be an entirely unproductive undertaking. So we went out anyway and walked into a misty gray morning, which had in the end its own sort of loveliness.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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The vines have been pruned and trained along wires for the next growing season…

The vineyards on the Rhine are full of walking paths, zigzagging back and forth across the slopes. It is possible to hike the entire length of the Rheingau, sometimes through the vineyards and sometimes through the woods, dipping down into the villages in the valleys. The roads that crisscross the vineyards are primarily there for the winemakers, enabling them to ferry workers or small equipment high up the steep sides of the mountain. But they are also there for those who want to enjoy the beauty of the valley for its own sake, from curious tourists to serious hikers to locals out for a Sunday stroll. The paths are dotted with benches and the occasional gazebo at the particularly lovely spots.

And, because this is Germany after all, every once in a while there is a tiny self-serve kiosk where you can open a door and take out a bottle of local wine and glasses, pay by the honor system, and then sit and drink. It’s the perfect mix of nature and culture, I think: the gorgeousness of the Rhine River valley all around you, and then community over a shared bottle of wine. The last time we were here, an hour at a picnic table turned into two, and then three, and we shared stories and then walked with new-found friends all the way back to the village. It’s things like that that make me miss Germany.

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Checking out the wine selection at one of the many self-serve stations along the way, although it was too cold and too early in the day for a drink.

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Into the woods..

Travelogue LXVI: We

unspecified-10January 10, 2016 In the few years of this blog’s activity, I’ve tried to keep purely personal narratives to a minimum, to reveal the goings-on in my life only to the extent that they were applicable to the business of being abroad. But some of you may have noticed that the I in my posts has been more and more frequently replaced by a we. Maybe that deserves a bit of an explanation.

And anyway, some joys are just too big not to be shared.

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Travelogue LXV: Humans of Vermont II

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJanuary 5, 2017 Jonathan and I have flown in from opposite sides of the planet to spend Christmas in Vermont. We have a place to stay together thanks to the wonderful hospitality of Katharina and Glenn, who have lent us the use of the tiny cabin/sauna up the hill from the home they finished building last summer. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere’s a look into the beautiful space Katharina and Glenn have created for themselves, using timbers from an old deconstructed barn. The house is on a back road about fifteen minutes from my family’s farm, surrounded by the other cabins and homes Glenn has built over the decades. They have big plans for the place–an outdoor kitchen this summer, an amphitheater built into the hillside, grapes on the south-facing slope, animals to keep the fields clear. They want a space for collaborative living, for projects and creators of all kinds.

During the day, the sun pours in the wall of south-facing windows, flooding the living room and kitchen with light and making the two wood stoves that heat the place almost irrelevant. But it is winter in Vermont, and the nights are long and it’s pitch black and ice cold again by 4:30. We spend the evenings installing speakers and a turntable for Glenn’s massive collection of records, or reading under a petroleum lamp in our cabin up the road. We trail along with Glenn and Katharina to a solstice celebration, a bonfire and poetry followed by bluegrass fiddling. One night we haul apple pie and wine up the hill and fire up the sauna. It’s snowing hard, and after we are thoroughly sweating we step outside and rub ice into our backs.

For Jonathan and me, it’s offered us space to reconnect after months of 5,600 miles of separation, and to make some pretty big and exciting plans about our future. And, of course, a chance to rest and revel in Vermont’s beauty. Jonathan has split wood and driven trucks to his heart’s content, and I’ve seen my mountains again.

Und es war alles, alles gut. 

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The sauna up the hill, where we are staying.

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Travelogue LXIV: Stanford

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADecember 31, 2016 One year ago today, I stood on the old stone bridge in Heidelberg between rolling hills and vineyards, screaming and laughing and hugging as New Year’s fireworks arched off the castle parapets. Now, 365 days later, we will leave this tiny Vermont village to dance in the new year in Montpelier’s old Grange Hall with the usual, lovely, giddy crowd of hippies and farmers.

And when it’s all over, I won’t be taking the train to the Mainzer Altstadt, but  flying back across America to the San Francisco Bay to start my second semester at Stanford, Ph.D. in German Literature and Languages. My brain, and my soul, haven’t quite caught up with the changes of the last year.

On one hand, Stanford has been incredible. This is what I came back to American academia for–the incredible intensity and closeness of education, the in-class debates that blur the lines between scholarship and politics and life, the drinks with the professors at the end of the semester, the feeling of community and shared joy (and sometimes misery) among the students. And being at this particular school is a blessing; the resources and opportunities at my disposal are still shocking to me. You’re playing with the big boys now, Emily. How on earth did you get here? 

The sheer beauty of the place is staggering, too. It’s like living and working at a five-star resort, 365 days of the year. The long porticos and green lawns and palm trees–and the sun, this wonderful warm, dry light that I can’t get enough of after a childhood in New England and two years in Germany. I sit at the bright little cafe on the quad and drink my chai latte with almond milk, reading contemporary theater and overlooking green grass and flowers, and can’t quite believe it.

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Memorial Church

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From the steps of the library.

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The German Department building.

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The library.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the same time, though, the last semester has been hard and unsettling in new ways. I’m experiencing culture shock for the first time in my life, in the country I was born in. Arriving in Germany felt like coming home–some part of me immediately recognized something there, and I fell for the place hook, line, and sinker. Here, even now I’m still struggling to find my feet under me, to make sense of exactly what this whole place is about, to find something to hold on to in the rush and energy of the Silicon Valley.

And it turns out that living on a five-star resort starts to become a bit freaky, after a while. We spend the day in Berkeley, with its dirt and its homeless, and the campus here begins to seem disturbingly prettified. We count more Apple products than people in the cafes in Paolo Alto.  Our student housing has a sauna and pool, and we swim under the stars and palm trees and discuss an article from Die Zeit–about families in our community who make $50,000/year and still live on the streets, because the housing market is booming and things can be a bit problematic if you don’t work for Google or have a Stanford stipend. But we don’t see any of that ourselves, not on our daily walks between our newly-renovated subsidized apartments and the school. We have the sneaking feeling that something very real is missing from our experience of the Bay Area.

It’s not that saunas and MacBooks are bad things, and it’s not at all that I am ungrateful for the incredible gift of these next five years, for the opportunity to do what I love in such a stunning and secure environment. But this place asks some hard questions when you peek below the gorgeous, red-tile-and-sandstone surface.

Maybe that’s a good thing, though. Check your privilege, all ye who enter here. I would like to learn how to do that.

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A few of the dozens of Rodin sculptures on campus.

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Hoover Tower

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I still can’t get over the palm trees.

Travelogue LXIII: Vermont I: Landscape

September 1st, 2016 I’ve been back in Vermont for two weeks now. At the end of the day, this place comes and will always come closer to home than anywhere else I might live. It’s in my blood, familiar as the back of my hand.

The aesthetics of Vermont are winning me over again, as they always do. It’s a sort of resting, this–to stare into the distance and see nothing but woods and clouds and perhaps a single mown field on the horizon. You can hardly do that in Germany. It’s a country full of green spaces, but with 82 million people in a land the size of Montana, the next village is almost always in sight. Here, so much of what one sees is defined by emptiness, and that emptiness is breathtaking.

This time, instead of posting my own photos I am handing things over to my very talented mother and sister, who have captured a great deal of beauty on the farm in the last two years. Most of the pictures were taken from our front porch.

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Travelogue LXII: Liminality

Liminality, noun. From the Latin limen, threshold. The quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.

In common usage, liminality describes any period of transition, where the individual has the feeling of being on both sides of a boundary or threshold. It is often a time of discomfort, of waiting, and of transformation. (source)

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Between Mainz and Geisenheim.

July 26, 2016 I find myself in a liminal space. In three weeks, I will be in Vermont. The day after tomorrow, I will defend the thesis I came to Germany to write. Everything is in flux.

Next week I will be spending the last night in my beloved apartment in the Old City.  It’s been the first place in my life that belonged only to me—above the flower shop, in a cobblestone street where the bums call out “Good morning, Whistling Girl!” when they see me and the waiter in my favorite Weinstube knows my name. The leave-taking is hard. Last spring, I watched the mourning doves outside my window raise a family while I went to the theater alone; this spring, I was the one making a nest. And now I’m packing everything into suitcases again and starting over on the other side of the world.
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Between Hamburg and Copenhagen.

 July 30, 2016 Germany, it seems, is also in a liminal space. It’s a strange and heady time here, when it seems like Europe is falling apart a little at the seams, where in Germany especially the greatest of challenges is faced and answers are sought to very hard questions. The face of this country is in flux.
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Some parts of the change you are used to already, even when you don’t want to be. For instance, you are drinking wine with friends when one of them excuses himself to go call friends in Munich to make sure they are ok, and you say, “Another terrorist attack?“ and know that the answer is yes and somehow are not even shocked anymore.
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Some things you are still learning. For instance, you are standing in Berlin in the train station surrounded by thousands of people and you think fleetingly that any one of those suitcases, any one of those sunglassed tourists could be about to blow the place up. You are learning not to be scared. You are not scared.
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But still, there is always something in the air, an underlying current of discomfort that only needs the tiniest of triggers to come to the surface. You are at the Christopher Street Day in Mainz, laughing and dancing and watching a line-up of the Pfalz’s finest drag queens, when someone pops a balloon behind you—louder than usual, cutting through the music. You jump and cling together for a second and have to admit that the first thought that entered your head was that this was finally it, the nightmare come to Mainz….
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Ambiguity, discomfort, transformation. The whole country is waiting; the ritual is not yet at an end. And right now, all one can do is stand in a torn-apart kitchen and wash windows and almost cry as Rheinhard May sings “Wann ist Frieden endlich Frieden?“—when is peace finally peace? 
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Between Mainz and Frankfurt

August 25, 2016 I’ve been back in Vermont for ten days now, in this place that seems so silent and peaceful and non-transformative in comparison to what I just left.

Taking the bus up to Vermont from Boston, the driver plays the country station I grew up listening to, wedged between my father and my siblings on the seat of the pickup. We fly up the interstate and I am suddenly surrounded by the Green Mountains, for the first time in over a year. This is home, I think, I’m back.

But later that night, the liminality of it all is brought back to me again. Even after 24 hours of jet-lagged travel, I can’t sleep, in my own childhood bedroom. The silence and dark–things I once treasured, things I needed to sleep–are suddenly oppressive, foreign. I want the echoes of footsteps on cobblestones, want the friendly light from the street lamp in the courtyard. In the huge drafty room I share with my sister, I feel lost.

And so the transition goes on. After the first few nights, I can sleep in Vermont again. But in two weeks, I will be leaving even this for a strange city on the West Coast and a new field of studies and a new way of life. I will arrive again, and put down roots, and I am deeply looking forward to this.

At the moment, though, I’m still standing on both sides of the threshold.

Travelogue LXXI: Berlin Again

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Hackischer Höfe–street art, anarchy, eros, tourism.

July 20, 2016 Berlin again–my fourth time in the city, and the first time I was able to get a glimpse into the world behind the city’s glamorous tourist front, if only for the few days we spent visiting friends and sleeping in an apartment in Neukölln with the s-train roaring by all night long. The whole place is growing on me.

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Berlin is full of artists and hippies and anarchists, and also hipsters posing as artists and hippies and anarchists. Gentrification is the most pressing buzzword in the Vororte (outskirts)–the process by which poor, “problematic” neighborhoods are cleaned up to suit the values and tastes of middle-class apartment-buyers. “First the social workers show up, and then the police, and then the hipsters,” said a friend of Jonathan’s, himself a social worker in an especially metamorphic area of the city. “In a few years, no local will be able to afford to live here anymore.” What do you do when you find your neighborhood suddenly sanitized beyond recognition, and the rent prices are going through the roof, and you are suddenly surrounded by the young and privileged and have nowhere to go?

Right now, Berlin is in transition, and the discrepancies that come along with that are obvious even to an outsider. It is a jarring experience, to sit in a café surrounded by MacBooks and 4-euro coffee served artfully in mason jars (and to be drinking that coffee yourself), and look out the window at legless beggars and children in dirty clothes playing on the sidewalk.

Am I at this moment part of the the solution, or part of the problem? 

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In the end, though, Berlin has always been a city in transition of some form or another, and despite or because of the tension and discrepancy the city has something–an openness, sexiness, energy, a pressing sense of the past and a vicious exhilarating drive towards the future. You can be whatever you want here–queer, crazy, bourgeois, elite–and you will find a place to fit in to–a dive-bar in Neukölln with police sirens blaring by outside at all hours of the day and night, or a flower-filled garden outside of the Literaturhaus, the arts section of Die Zeit open on your lap.

Jonathan and I both said that if our careers and lives weren’t taking us in two opposite directions, we would move to Berlin together. We weren’t alone, we were told. “The whole world wants to move here,” said a friend, himself a student and long-time resident. “We thought the hype would stop eventually, but it just keeps getting stronger. So act now. In two years, even people as privileged as us won’t be able to afford the place.”

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After a week we were exhausted but also wanted to stay longer. Mainz, with not a soul in sight when we got off the train at one in the morning, seems almost eerily peaceful in comparison.

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Travelogue LXX: Sweden

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The wood-fired sauna in the back garden of friends. In Germany, saunas are a sort of Holy of Holies–no talking, no eating, no nonsense. In Sweden, well, there are often beer bottle openers nailed up to the doors.

June 3, 2016 Last Friday morning I found myself for the first time in six months suddenly no longer writing a thesis. A surreal experience, that, to hold in my hands the culminating project of the degree I came to Germany to get. At any rate, a bit of celebration was in order.

Jonathan had been invited to give a lecture at the Swedish Wine Association, and I took the train up to join him a few days later in Varberg, a tiny town on the Western coast. He spent a couple years helping build up a young winery there, and still has deep connections to the people who run the place.

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Ästad Vingård, the winery.

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Consulting services for a small-scale ecological wine grower.

And so we spent the first couple days attending to business at the winery, or rather Jonathan attended to business and I looked at everything and tried simultaneously to learn Swedish and to not break anything and also drank a lot of wine. On the second day, we spent six hours perched on the back of a four-wheeler spreading natural fertilizer on grape vines and singing Irish drinking songs at the top of our lungs. On the third day, we cleaned out and tilled a little garden plot for a friend and then ran and jumped in the North Sea, which was disgustingly frigid. It doesn’t get much more romantic than that.

Even if I hadn’t been experiencing it all with a particularly dear human being, I still would have reveled in it. This new world I have been introduced to in the last few months–the vineyards, the people who work them, the wine cellars and shops and curious tourists who keep the family business afloat–is something I knowSheep people are not that much different than wine people, at the end of the day. Agritourism is agritourism, no matter which side of the pond you are on. I find the same vocabulary and passions on a winery on the coast of Sweden that I do on a tiny sheep farm in central Vermont. And the more I journey on into the heady world of academia and scholarship, the more I find myself eternally drawn back to these things.

Anyway, in exchange for the work we got two nights in the winery inn–lovely room, wood-fired saunas, three-course dinners in the restaurant followed by all the delights of an open bar. A fair trade, if you ask me.

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Barefoot gardening 100 meters from the North Sea.

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There were wood-fired hot tubs next to the saunas, yo.

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Typical Swedish architecture–wooden construction, straw roofing (below).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the last day, we walked up the coast outside of Varberg–a surreal, rugged world of rocks and seaweed and trees bent over backwards from the wind off the sea. Gray and monotone when shot through a macro lens, but infinitely detailed and colorful and rich when viewed up close.

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Looking back at Varberg’s fortress and harbor.

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Varberg’s harbor.

Then it was over, and we made the 15-hour journey back home–through three countries, change trains in Copenhagen and Hamburg, take the ferry into Germany, arrive in Mainz in the pitch black and catch the last bus home.

After so much time on trains, their rhythm and swing get into your bones. For hours afterwards you feel like your entire world is moving, like you are still rushing on into the night with rain water slanting off the windows.

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Half-way between Denmark and Germany.

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People I: Andrea Noeske-Porada

In my last few months abroad, I would like to add to my exploration of physical spaces of Germany a look at just a few of the people who live here. Because I have gotten to know some pretty extraordinary folks in the last two years. So, in the spirit of Shakespeare’s Miranda, here’s Emily Abroad: People.

Oh, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!
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Photo credit: Iris Kaczmarcyk

Andrea Noeske-Porada: felter, teacher, artist. 

I met Andrea while my parents were in Germany–my mother wanted to take a felting course with one of Germany’s many world-renowned fiber artists, and sent me a list of names to check. Most were far away, in Munich or Berlin, but Andrea just happened to be right across the Rhine. And so I called her, and my mother ended up taking a day-long workshop with her.
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And then it just so happened that she needed someone to translate her website into English, and someone to help her in the studio with her next exhibit, and that was that. I’ve since spent many afternoons in her workshop, helping prepare pre-felts or working on small projects of my own or just drinking tea and talking. I grew up felting, and put myself through college by teaching fiber art classes on the farm and making thousands of felted dolls to sell.  And then I became a grad student, and working-with-my-hands was replaced by working-with-my-mind. My creative life  now mostly consists of libraries and pages instead of soap bubbles and wool. The chance to return to physical creation at the side of someone as inspiring as Andrea is something wonderful, indeed.

Her studio space itself is fascinating: a converted town hall in a tiny wine-soaked village outside of Mainz. There’s a stage at one end, now full of boxes and boxes of fiber, and a tiny kitchen at the other, where there is always tea and chocolate. There’s a CD player for playing tango or Ray Charles, and the afternoon sun shines in your face as you work. It’s all a bit disorderly, as places of creation should be.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere is Andrea in her own words, in an artistic statement I just translated for her to deliver before the workshop she is currently giving in Argentina:

Ever since the 70s, I kept myself busy artistically with textile materials alongside my study of law. At that time it was mostly graphic wax batiks; since then I have become interested in three-dimensional objects. After my children left home in the early 2000s, I began to look for new materials and techniques. In a round-about way I encountered felt, and after several attempts I discovered the material’s potential for spatial creation. I decided to complete a two-year-long training program, in order to get to know felt from the ground up. 
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My interest has always been primarily for abstract, reduced, and form-based art and construction, which my study of art history only strengthened. Therefore, it was increasingly difficult for me to take pleasure in the many often overblown, decorative elements, the rounded edges, and the ever-recurring spiral-shaped features which I found so frequently in felt. It appealed to me more and more to attempt the opposite in felt and to find out how and if the medium would comply with my wishes. Inspired from the work of the Op-Art artist Victor Vasarely, I began to felt graphically with angular, sharp-edged geometric forms. The next step was the transferring of these images into the third dimension, that is, into reliefs. 
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One of Andrea’s creations, on the left, in an art exhibit in Wiesbaden. (Photo credit)

The development of this form of construction took awhile, and still continues today. The creation of single spaces is relatively straight-forward, but the linking of repeated space structures requires a sophisticated plan. Speculating about the logical sequence and the construction became more and more the most exciting part of my work, and the following process of realization completely lost its meaning. I am always getting new ideas about how to make the process better, or discovering new more suitable materials.
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More from Wiesbaden. (Photo credit)

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn my artistic work, as I said, the construction itself often takes first place, although the changeability and the liveliness of the finished object is also important to me. Textile materials are in their original meaning construction materials: their lightness, omnipresent availability, malleability, flexibility, and focused or spontaneous changeability make them the ideal medium for me. I am not a felter: for me, even the material has an artistic message and it is therefore always vital to think about why I want to achieve something in or with felt instead of some other substance.

In the case of the Felt Foldings [Andrea’s signature technique], the appeal lies in the apparent contradiction between theme and material. The warm, flattering felt does something to angular, sharp-edged objects: it absorbs sound, light, and reflection. Through the mobility of felt, the object or sculpture is no fixed entity, but rather something that can be transformed. One’s perception of and emotions surrounding the finished work can vary according to distance. From close up, the material plays a larger role than the form; from farther away, the architecture comes to the foreground.

Andrea's left-over scraps, ready to be used in a project of mine.

Andrea’s left-over scraps, ready to be used in a project of mine.

Evaluating felt samples for the next art object.

Evaluating felt samples for the next art project.

Spray bottles and soap.

Spray bottles, soap, and old pantyhose–tools of the trade.

Tea is important.

Tea is important.

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