Author: Nicolette

Roots in the Red Earth

When I was 17 and impatient for my life to begin, I dropped out of college and ran away. To Aspen.

Red cliffs near Maroon Lake, above Aspen.
Red cliffs near Maroon Lake, above Aspen.

My freshman semester at CU in Boulder had been rough. I couldn’t understand what Beowulf, Grendel, and his monstrous mother had to do with my life. I was desperately lonely. At Christmas, mourning the loss of a boyfriend, who dumped me, and parents who wouldn’t let me move back home, I bought a bus ticket and ran away.

I wanted to run far, far away. I craved a place that was exciting, exotic — safe, and familiar.

So, Aspen it was. In those days before cell phones, RFTA and the internet, it was indeed, far, far away.

But I knew this valley. I had gone to Outward Bound in Marble. I came here to ski, hike and climb. On family trips across the continental divide, I would gaze out the window, and as the gray eastern rock gave way to the red strata of the western slope, I began to unwind. It started around Vail, where the soil changes color and the aspens begin to crowd out the pines. By the time I got to Glenwood Springs, I felt at home.

When I ran away, I was, to paraphrase John Denver, “coming home to a place I never lived before.”

Below Snowmass Village, Colorado, fall of 2010. All photos by Nicolette Toussaint.

It was a wonderful winter. I lived in Snowmass Village with a tribe of other young ski bums, and in the spring, when our jobs melted away along with the snow, I hated to leave. A nice older gentleman – he was probably about 30 – gave me a ride to the bus station in Aspen so that I wouldn’t have to hitchhike. I sat there looking at the red hills with tears streaming down my face.

“You’ll be back,” he said. “You will be back.”

I didn’t believe him.

Author skiing at Snowmass, fall of 2012.

I had worked three jobs here, and I found out what it was like to wait tables and clean up other people’s bathrooms. I had learned that Grendel’s mother was, in fact, a famous red-haired actress who owned a condo in Snowmass Village. We hotel maids would draw straws to see who had to face that particular monster.

I wanted better, and to find it, I knew had to go back to school. And forward into the unknown.

My prospects were not bright. When I looked in the paper, all of the jobs I wanted were listed under “Help Wanted Male.” Help Wanted Female held jobs for secretaries and teachers, and didn’t offer much in the way of making money: I was too short to be a stewardess, too shy to be a Playboy bunny.

So I uprooted myself, got on with my life, and forgot that nice man’s prophecy.

Fast forward forty years, give or take a few.

Author’s xeriscape garden, summer of 2013.

I have just come home, and I am rooting in the red soil of my garden. It’s a xeriscape, filled with scent and color: columbines, lupines, salvia, sage, silvermounds, roses and rock cress. I do this every evening during the summer, taking time to unwind when I come home from my job.

I work as an online writer and website designer – work I could not have imagined 40 years ago, when I left Snowmass with the tears running down my face.

That nice man’s prophecy has come true. After many years, and losses far greater than those I knew at 17, I did come back.

Bee on a bachelor's button. The garden is filled with native plants, in part an effort to combat monoculture and provide food for these cultivators. I have counted four kinds of bees in the garden -- I think. (It's hard to count bees and I'm no expert.)
Bee on a bachelor’s button. The garden is filled with native plants, in part an effort to combat monoculture and provide food for these cultivators. I have counted four kinds of bees in the garden — I think. (It’s hard to count bees and I’m no expert.)

Between here and there, there was so much I could not have imagined at the 17: Kent State. The war in Vietnam. The falling of the Berlin wall. Divorce. Friends lost to AIDS, The suicide of Mason’s daughter. September 11th. The first black man in the white house. Columbine.  The death of my favorite cat. The melting of the glaciers. The drowning of island nations. Nine billion people on our beloved planet.

So much I cannot fix, so much I cannot save. And so I walk the red flagstone path that spirals into the center of my garden. I breathe the scent of lavender and artemisia. I meditate and breathe. Live. And breathe.

As I bend down to dig up a volunteer, and replant it in a better spot, the roots that sink down into this red, red soil are not just green ones; they are my own roots.

I’m not the first to live here, of course. Urban gardeners everywhere get the chance to become archeologists. My first garden in San Francisco yielded broken rice bowls, blue and white china shards. In my second, I found pesos and Saint Joseph, buried upside down. Here, I dig up rusted horseshoes and bits of barbed wire.

The stone commemorating Snowy the Mammoth, found near Ziegler Reservoir in Snowmass.
The stone commemorating Snowy the Mammoth, found near Ziegler Reservoir in Snowmass.

But the soil tells far older tales too. When we dug out the lawn, we found hard clay, and under that, river rocks. Hundreds of them! They come in a wildly improbable palette: red, green, white, gold, gray. Those rounded stones tell of the passing of glaciers, of rivers and peaks washed down over the eons to create the wide sunny spot we call Carbondale.

We filled the xeriscape with soil that our gardener Shara called “dino dirt”. It’s peat that came from a pit near the Ziegler reservoir in Snowmass Village – near the spot where Snowy the Mammoth and 26 other extinct animals were found. Our garden soil is filled with creatures that, in the words of Mary Oliver, were “wild and perfect for a moment” and are “now nothing – forever”.

Because this soil is full of the organic matter that our yard lacks, it makes plants reach for the sky with mad green abandon.

The othniella stone.
The othniella stone.

Along the garden’s spiraling path, I have placed river rocks that pay homage to those who have lived here over time. On the stones, I have painted pictographs of animals and references to when they lived: 225 million years ago, an othnielia, something like a velociraptor, walked by here. 200 million years ago, a plesiosaur swam by in an inland sea.

I wanted my stones to be spaced out to indicate the time between prehistoric eras. But I soon learned that I couldn’t come close to scaling that vast passage of time. I would have needed to place the ammonite out along I-70 near Grand Junction! The first fish would need to be located out near Yellowcat, Utah!

The mountain goat stone.
The mountain goat stone.

As it is, the terminator pig – a favorite of the neighborhood kids who come to visit my rocks – is much too close to the critters that lived in Snowmass. Terminator pig lived 35 million years ago, and he’s just a couple feet from the ice-age camel from 100,000 years ago. Snowy the Mammoth is only a foot from Smiley, the sabre tooth tiger, who was in our neighborhood 15,000 years ago.

Of course, the creature that — in a geologic twinkling of an eye — has so altered the earth, the climate, and the futures of all earthlings, is where he has always imagined himself to be — at the center of everything!  Here he is, the featherless biped, along with his domesticated dog. They crossed the Siberian land bridge together about 10,000 years ago. And here’s his friend the horse, re-introduced by the Conquistadors just 500 years ago.

The large oval stone at the center of the spiral is painted with a human figure that resembles petrogylphs in the Grand Canyon. It also bears a quote from a great native American, Chief Seattle. It reads:


The earth does not belong to us
We belong to the earth.
All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the earth
Befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.
We did not weave the web of life.
We are merely a strand within it.

Although this garden is my getaway, I understand that there is no escaping our interconnectedness. It was the biologist Barry Commoner who first made the statement, “There is no away.” One of his four laws of ecology states that “Everything Must Go Somewhere. There is no “waste” in nature and there is no “away” to which things made by humans can be thrown.”

I know that our garbage dumps are just product graves, and if our kind is not terminated like the terminator pig, perhaps in time, some archeologist will be digging up I-Phones along with our thigh bones.

About a month ago, Mark Kloster and I joined Barbara Palmer to plan TRUU’s summer services. As we sat on Barbara’s deck, alongside the Colorado River, the air filled with tiny wheeling insects. Their wings glittered as the sun sank in the western sky. They were mayflies, insects that live for just one day. There was something poignant in seeing that flash of life against cliffs 5 million years in the making.

In the grand evolutionary scheme of things, I am like the mayflies, as are we all.

In time, my own bones will be part of this red earth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Seed to stem. Bud to blossom. That’s the way my body will be reincarnated. In the meantime, I walk a sacred spiral path, cherishing my humble and silky life and seeking an angle of repose.

Spirit of Life, Let me heal and not hinder. Help me to accept my place in this fragile and miraculous web of life.

May it be so.


This post was originally a sermon delivered to the Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist congregation in Carbondale, Colorado, on July 7, 2013.
Peonies  By Mary Oliver
This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
   to break my heart
     as the sun rises,
        as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers and they open–
   pools of lace,
      white and pink–
       and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes
    into the curls,
      craving the sweet sap,
        taking it away

to their dark, underground cities–
   and all day
      under the shifty wind,
       as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies,
   and tip their fragrance to the air,
     and rise,
       their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness
    gladly and lightly,
      and there it is again–
        beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open.
    Do you love this world?
      Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
       Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
   and softly,
      and exclaiming of their dearness,
       fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
    their eagerness
      to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
        nothing, forever?



The Art of Addiction

VanGoghBy Guest Blogger Lisa Seward

It isn’t a widely acknowledged fact, but Vincent Van Gogh was a prolific drug user. His mental health battle with depression is well documented, but less so was his battle with addictions to absinthe and the prescription drug Digitalis (used to ease his epilepsy).

In fact, the overuse of the color yellow in his work can be attributed to these addictions: one of the side affects of the overuse of both absinthe and Digitalis is seeing in yellow, or seeing yellow spots in front of your eyes.VanGoghFlowers

Artistic drug use wasn’t just limited to Van Gogh. Jean-Michel Basquiat used several different drugs when he was painting, and he died of a heroin overdose when he was just 27 years old.

Gustave Doré, who created the illustrations for some of Charles Dickens’ works, enjoyed opium and created detailed illustrations depicting opium dens.

And in more recent years, promising artist Dash Snow, whose works were exhibited in the Saatchi Gallery, also died at the age of 27 of a drug overdose in Lafayette House, a hotel in Manhattan. His death was described as a “junkie’s end”.

Gustave Dorés Gustave Doré’s Wentworth Street, Whitechapel (1872). A stark illustration for Charles Dickens’ depiction of the dramatic contrasts between 19th century riches and poverty.

Creative people do tend to turn to drug and alcohol addictions and so these problems are quite common in artists. Much like cancer or depression, recent scientific research has shown that addiction is a disease: and much like those other illnesses, it is one that needs treatment and recovery.

The Addiction and Art Project

Because of this new research, the Addiction and Art Project was started by the former Innovators Combating Substance Abuse, a National Program Office of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The aim of the project is to use art to get people talking about addiction.

Because people enjoy and feel comfortable about discussing art, it can be used to start a dialogue about something that people feel considerably less comfortable talking about: addiction. Since the project began, Addiction and Art exhibitions have been held both in local communities and at professional substance abuse conferences.

There is also an Addiction and Art book which discusses the project more extensively. Via the Addiction and Art Project’s website, artists are sharing their work so that anyone can access it, view it, think about and discuss it. The artists then share their personal stories or inspiration for the artwork they have created.

HandThatFeeds600This image of a crow and serpent, entitled “The Hand that Feeds”, is by artist Carrie Napora. She shares that: “This image’s meaning parallels Vendizotti”s “The Crow and the Serpent” fable. The crow, driven by hunger, seized a serpent, who twisted around, sinking venomous fangs into the crows’ leg. The bird shrieked in pain, for the food he hoped would sustain his life had instead caused his death.

My own experience of watching a loved one craze over what he thought he couldn’t live without reminds me of this story, The moral is that when acting in one’s own interest, consider the harm one’s action may cause others, or risk coming to a miserable end…in his case, a suicidal death.

As well as encouraging people to talk about addiction and share their stories of how addiction has touched their lives, there is a new school of thought that art can actually help overcome addiction.

Art Therapy for Recovery Addicts

In local recovery programs across the United States and worldwide, art therapy is being used as a technique to help drug and alcohol addicts overcome their addictions. Art therapy is a recognized form of therapy that encourages people to express themselves through painting and drawing.

Sessions are led by a trained therapist, and often creative sessions are followed by one-on-one counseling sessions. Art therapy is the perfect tool for those who have difficulty expressing how they feel, or feel too ashamed to talk about the negative activity their drug taking has caused. Instead they can express their feelings and vent their frustrations through their art work, and discuss this work with their therapist instead.

The American Art Therapy Association represents more than 5,000 professional art therapists in more than 40 chapters around the world. So it seems that as well as well as being more susceptible to substance abuse in its many forms, artists can also help other addicts to overcome their problems and re-enter society.

Killing Time, Killer Horses and Killer Apps in Airport Art

Big Blue Horse on Pena Avenue entering Denver International Airport
Big Blue Horse on Pena Avenue entering Denver International Airport

Anyone who has had to kill time between connecting flights or has been marooned in an airport has cause to celebrate art in airports. This post will be devoted to some of the more memorable permanent pieces I have seen on my way from here to there.

Although I used to travel frequently for various jobs – particularly wearing a groove between San Francisco and San Diego – I don’t fly much anymore. These days, most of my travel takes off from Sardy Field in Aspen, Colorado,  a sweet little one-runway airport so small that they wheel mobile staircases up to planes to allow you to disembark. No jetways here. (For direct flights, I usually drive to Denver, home of the big blue horse at left. More about that later.)

Because of lessening travel, my memories of airport art tend to be a bit dated, and I asked friends on Facebook to nominate some of their favorite pieces to be featured in this post. My thanks to all of them.

Hot Stuff at O’Hare

Neon at O'Hare in Chicago
Neon at O’Hare in tunnel leading to the United Terminal

With a tip of the hat to my friend Alexei Folger, the Travel Oracle, I will begin my tour of memorable airport art with an installation of neon spaghetti that I remembered, but was unable to place.

Alexei, who provides tech support to Filemaker databases all across the US and who has a permanently-packed overnight kit always at the ready,  reminded me that this art lights up the ceiling of a tunnel connecting concourses in the United Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

Brachiosaurus at O-Hare Airport. Photo by Team Farkle 7

My Facebook friend Alexander DeWolfe also loves this kinetic display. To really appreciate this installation, which is by Michael Hayden and is called “The Sky’s the Limit,” go check it out on YouTube. Alex reminded me that as the waves of light travel along the tunnel with you, changing to reflect a spectrum of colors, they are accompanied by Brian Eno’s music.

Another surprise awaiting the weary traveler just beyond the neon tunnel is a 72-foot long brachiosaurus.

Although he’s there more in the service of science than art, this Jurassic vegetarian looms upward in a gesture that I find both startling and artistic. I usually think of a concourse as a long, horizontal box, but I find myself staring at the space between my head and the skylights silhouetting the dino’s head, impressed with the verticality of the space. The brachiosaurus comes from Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and s/he stands beside the museum’s store at O’Hare.

I Am Afraid of the Big Blue Horse

Blucifer could kill again. Image by unknown photographer/artist.
Blucifer could kill again! Image by unknown photographer/artist on Facebook.

These days, if I need to travel far, I usually fly out of Denver International Airport. Which brings me to the blue horse pictured at the top of this post.

This horse rears up along Pena Avenue on the way into DIA, and he’s inspired a kind of a cult following. There’s actually a Facebook group called I Am Afraid of the Big Blue Horse at DIA! At one point, before Facebook changed formats and confused things, the group had roughly 10,000 members.

Not to be outdone, Calgary’s Airport also has a big horse. Looks far more benign than DIA’s; maybe she’s a mare? Photo by Calgary Daily Photo.

Nicknamed “Blucifer,” DIA’s  32-foot-high sculpture is officially named the “Blue Mustang.” He is listed as one of the Top 5 Bizarre Art Displays on Yahoo and has also been cited by CNN as one of the nation’s top pieces of airport art.

This very anatomically-correct (!) stallion was commissioned two years before DIA opened, and he was created by New Mexico artist Luis Jimenez in 1993.

But here’s a spooky fact: Blucifer killed his creator.

On June 13, 2006 a large section of Blue Mustang  fell onto Jimenez and severed an artery in the artist’s leg. The sculpture was finished by studio assistants and family members.

Perpetual Motion in Boston

I’m captivated by this art work every time I see it, no matter how much time I have spent tracking little balls making their way through this kinetic sculpture. Located at Logan International Airport, the sculpture was created by George Rhoads and is called “Exercise in Fugality.”

Exercise in Fugality
George Rhoads’ Rube Goldberg device at Logan Airport. Photo by Coebabelghoti.

At a time when I was making repeated trips to Boston, I actually looked forward to having to kill time in the airport because it gave me time to stare at what must be the killer app of Rube Goldberg variety.

Clearly, I’m not the only person to have this response.

Below one of several YouTube videos of this sculpture – a medium that communicates the wonder of this artwork far better than the still photo at right –  Darealfiberoptix has written:

“When I was a kid, my mom lost me at an airport somehow.  It took a couple hours to find me and I was just standing in a trance watching the mechanical complexity. I had never seen anything like that before. I was blown away.”

Kicking Calder Around in Philadelphia

“As far as permanent installations go, I think the Calder mobile at Pittsburgh International Airport will always be my favorite,” writes my interior designer friend Wendy Hoechstetter.

Alexander Calder's mobile entitled "Pittsburgh." Photo by Elston's photostream.
Alexander Calder’s mobile entitled “Pittsburgh.” Photo by Elston’s photostream.

“I’ve always been a Calder fan, in part precisely because of this very piece, which figures prominently in my early memories, when my father used to take us out to the airport on weekends to watch the planes. It doesn’t stand out as much in the current newer terminal as it did in the smaller original one, but it’s always a sign that I’m home once I see it.”

Turns out that Calder did call Pittsburgh home – but the city and the airport weren’t always respectful of his sculpture, which is named “Pittsburgh.”  The Pittsburgh City Paper comments, “We’ve treated the sculpture rather shoddily since Calder, a Philadelphia native and one of the foremost American sculptors of the 20th century, exhibited the 28-by-28-foot sculpture in the 1958 Carnegie International. To all appearances, Calder’s black-and-white mobile of aluminum and iron – two distinctly Pittsburgh metals – was a huge success. ‘Pittsburgh’ won the first prize for sculpture at the 1958 International, and it was purchased at the exhibition by one G. David Thompson.”

Now here’s the dirt. Writing on Flickr, Chuck Schneider explains:

Benny Bufano Peace Sculpture
Benny Bufano Peace Sculpture

“County Officials, in their finite wisdom, decided it would be ‘nice’ if the mobile were painted to match the Allegheny County color scheme of green and yellow. This was promptly done.

“Then, in a flash of brilliance, they decided it hung too low, so they hung some weights on it to shift the pieces. This immobilized the mobile, so to solve that problem, they attached it to a motor. All of course without ever consulting the artist.

“Calder, oddly enough, was incensed. At that time in history, however, an artist had very little recourse for such actions. So in a compromise, it was agreed to paint the mobile in a ‘Calder Red’. It wasn’t so easy. When the paint job was finished, the paint had been too thin, and it turned out to be pink.

“It wasn’t until 1979 that the mobile was taken down, repainted, and the weights removed. For a number of years then it was hung in the Carnegie Museum, where it had originally hung in 1958. In 1992, it was back at the airport, looking just like it did before all that nonsense.”

Old Friends & New in San Francisco

The course of public art, like love, never has run smooth. For years, I loved passing by the Benny Bufano sculpture that stood near the entrance to SFO. It has since been moved to near Lake Merced. Bufano’s Peace sculpture was controversial in its time. It was rejected by the patron who first commissioned it. After seeing it completed, decided that he liked Bufano’s bunnies and bears better than this rocket-like political statement.

Hearts in San Francisco is an annual fundraiser for San Francisco General Hospital that started in 2004. The hearts are decorated by local artists and placed all over town - including here at Union Square and at SFO - before being auctioned off in a fundraiser for San Francisco General Hospital.
Hearts in San Francisco. These hearts are decorated by local artists and placed all over town – including here at Union Square and also at SFO – before being auctioned off in a fundraiser for San Francisco General Hospital.

Beniamino Bufano was a great proponent of public art.  He offered his services to any community that could pay him day wages and supply materials. Of “Peace,” he wrote that he sculpted it “in the form of a projectile to express the idea that if peace is to be preserved today it must be enforced peace – enforced by the democracies against Fascist barbarism. Modern warfare, which involves the bombing of women and children, has no counterpart in a peace interpreted by the conventional motif of olive branches and doves.”

Sanctuario, a mural in the Mexicano Terminal at SFO. Photo courtesy of Jauna Alicia website.
Sanctuario, a mural in the Mexicano Terminal at SFO. Photo courtesy of Jauna Alicia website.

SFO still has plenty of art, including fine changing exhibits. Among those that are installed permanently, my friend Sonnie Willis, a wonderful photographer, nominates as her favorite, “The mural in the Mexicana Terminal at San Francisco Airport.”

Sonnie writes, “I had the pleasure to meet the artist, Juana Alicia, years ago at a school in Marin County. She also worked on the mural for the Women’s Building in San Francisco.”

As Juana Alicia’s website describes it, “The concepts central to our design are the themes of: migration and permanence; movement and stillness; and intimacy within a public space. The airport is often the setting for some of the most dramatic moments and milestones in our lives. In our design we honor the wonderful and significant meetings and partings that happen in the airport, to bring to the foreground and freeze those moments in time, while creating a light-filled context of movement, flow of life and the energy of travel.”


Please share your favorite examples of memorable airport art by leaving a comment on this blog.

Zapped by Zapotec Rugs

Zapotec rug: Oaxaca Dawn from Novica

Perhaps because of the early darkness and cold outside, I have embarked on quest for color.

I have been wanting a focal piece of art in my living room, and decided to find something that Mason and I could give each other as a holiday gift. Something energetic like the Zapotec rug to the left.

As I mentioned some posts back, my house feels Latin-American or American Indian. The cobalt blue Talavera tile set into the saltillo floor of dining room – not to mention a big New Mexican sun cut into the kitchen tile  – give the open kitchen/dining room a Southwestern flavor, and the south light is as warm and golden as honeyed sopapillas.

The living room doesn’t have great light, nor any Latin touches. Initially, I set it up using things I already owned, figuring to improve on it later. And later is now.

That’s the room on the right — a little drab for my tastes. That rug above the TV chest, a Zapotec with a bird pattern, looks awfully washed out against the ivory walls.

I do have the good fortune to have inherited a genuine, vintage Navajo rug from my step-father, Bill Devine. You can see it on the floor in the foreground.

Teec Nos Navajo rug

“Not Navajo”

Bill was encouraged to buy this rug in the early 1960’s when he was a surveyor for the Nevada highway department.

Bill’s rod man, a Navajo, took Bill to a local trading post and encouraged him to buy some good Navajo weaving. Bill had a tough time selecting the rug. Each time that Bill wood choose something, his rod man – a man of few words – would cross his arms over his chest, shake his head in disapproval and say, “Not Navajo.”

What he meant was that Bill was choosing things that strayed from Navajo weaving tradition.

Two Grey Hills Navajo rug

My rug is definitely Navajo. You can see it on the floor in the foreground. Like many — perhaps most — classic Navajo weavings, it’s not brightly colored.

Prior to the introduction of aniline dyes around the time of the Civil War, Navajos primarily used wool in the colors their sheep grew it: grey, white, brown, black. A few other colors, chiefly red and yellow, were added from plant-based dyes, but these were not very bright.

Ganado Navajo rug

I have included a few classic Navajo rug patterns in this post by way of illustration; most of these pattern types are named for the areas in which they have been traditionally woven: Two Grey Hills, Ganado and Teec Nos are all famous rug patterns and place names. (In my recent internet rug search, I discovered that “Navajo” rugs are being manufactured in Arabia and Hong Kong — a long way from Tuba City!)

A deeply saturated red in a rug — or the inclusion of any color out of the range I mentioned above — should be a tip-off that the rug is “Not Navajo” or at least not historic. (Modern Navajo rugs, and Navajo Yei and sandpainting rugs don’t follow these classic rules.)

Some rather-nice, vibrantly colored rugs are being sold on E-Bay by folks who have described them as Navajo, even though a trained eye will quickly see that they are Zapotec weavings. Zapotec rugs are not rare or expensive, but they are a genuine folk art. Hand woven by Indians in Oaxaca, Mexico, they are part of a weaving tradition that reaches back more than 500 years.

Local Color Wanted

My house already contains a number of brightly-colored Guatemalan textiles and Zapotec rugs — souvenirs of my travels — and this house is the perfect place to indulge my long-time love for American Indian and Southwest art.

A grey Zapotec? Picks up the tones in the Navajo rug nicely, but the room lacks flair.

A blue Zapotec? This would work if I was also seeing the cobalt-colored Talvera tile that’s set into the dining room floor, but you can’t see both at once. And it’s too chilly.

I’m liking this red, but the geometry of the design is a bit too complex. The geometry of the Navajo rug is simple, and I’m thinking this new rug needs to echo that.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not the sort to adorn my space with Kokopelli figures, which have, to my way of thinking, become about as cliche as Hello Kitty. Nor am I enamored of coyotes wearing kerchiefs. That’s too kitschy for me.

I did want to echo the patterns in my Navajo rug, while warming up the room, which does have wine-red leather furniture.

So I went searching for another Zapotec. But the choices are many, and I had almost as much trouble making a selection as Bill did!

Although my choice didn’t have to pass muster with a critical rod man, I did want my husband to pleased. To help him visualize the choices, I Photoshopped the rugs that I liked, dropping them into the photo of the living room that you see above.

I thought that my readers might be also interested in that process, so I have included a few of the Photoshop images to the left.

The Test of Time

Years ago, I bought about a dozen Zapotec rugs in Tijuana. I still have most of them. They have stood up to years of wear on both floors and walls. (The gray and white bird pattern rug that’s currently on the wall was part of that initial purchase. It’s in good shape, but too understated for that spot.)

Zapotecs come in an amazing range of colors, and I tried quite a few before discovering the right combination of color and pattern. I created a dozen Photoshopped pictures, not just the three you see here!

I highly recommend this photo-visualization process; I have used it with my interior design clients, and it always helps them to get a feel for color.

After revising my focal wall a dozen times, I think I finally found the look that I was seeking: Vibrant, yet harmonious.

What do you think?

The winning rug! Woven by Mexico’s Mario Chavez, it’s also from Novica. They call it “Energy of Life,” and say that “each step in the diamond symbolizes a different stage of life beginning with conception.”


All That Glitters is Not Gold – It May be Porcelain

These days, as the proud showroom manager for the Balentine Collection in Aspen, Colorado, I get to see a lot of handsome new ceramic, porcelain and stone tile products making their way onto the market. Lately, I have been having a flirtation with metal tile.

Usually, metal tile is not made only of metal. Often, the metal is a cap over porcelain or ceramic tile, or the metal shine comes from a glaze. Sometimes, pieces of metal or metal tiles are combined with stone (and/or glass) in a mosaic. Here’s an example. This travertine and copper border comes from Australian tile manufacturer Maniscalco.

Bondi Beach Borders: Hotel Bondi

I love the interplay of color and light in the copper, and the contrast of textures between the metal and the travertine. This 3 in x 11 3/4 inch border is called Hotel Bondi and is part of the Bondi Beach Borders™ series. It would be stunning in a kitchen or a bathroom, or as an accent on a mantel.

Porcelanosa: Ironker Cobre

The image above is Ironker Cobre from Porcelanosa. This is a large format porcelain tile — 17″x 26″ — with a metallic shine, and it’s extremely versatile because the pieces are so large. Because it’s durable and somewhat textured, Ironker makes a great, non-slip flooring material. Porcelanosa features it as flooring in their installation shots. Can you visualize this in a bistro-styled dining room or around a home bar?

Copper Flashing

Flashier still is La Nova’s Metaluxe Flashing. The Metaluxe collection is metal tile over a porcelain substrate. That means that while it’s pretty enough to be installed inside, it’s also tough enough for exterior applications. You could install this around your grill on the patio.

This tile comes in a choice of 6″ x 12″,  6″ x 24″ and 12″ x 24″ formats, as well as several colors and brushed metal patterns. In addition to the silver and gold tones shown here to the left and right, there’s also a pale platinum tile.

Because of their industrial chic, I can envision these tiles making a handsome kitchen backsplash. Because of their reflectivity, they would also be good at opening up a too-small or too-dark foyer.

Cobre’s Cousin

The Porcelanosa tile shown above has lots of relatives, all members of Porcelanosa’s Stonker line of porcelains. The Cobre (copper) shown above is actually part of the Ironker (iron) family, which also includes an Ironker Acero. Even more extensive is the Ferroker group, which includes Ferroker Alumino, Ferroker Caldera, Ferroker Niquel, Ferroker Titanio and their handsome parent: Ferroker, shown in the detail below.

Porcelanosa: Ferroker

Ferroker is a Stone-Ker porcelain tile, which can be used on indoor or outdoor walls and floors. It can even live outside happily during Aspen’s ski season, which makes it a great choice here in the Rockies. Stone-Ker tiles are made with 95% recycled materials, as an added benefit.

Daltile: Fashion Accents: Fortress Shimmer

The handsome mosaic above is a nickel blend from Daltile’s Fashion accent series. It comes in 12″ x 12″ sheets on a mesh backing, so it’s easy to install. The series includes silvers, coppers and wrought iron tiles mixed with glass and stone tile for lots of choice.

Maniscalco: Bondi Beach Borders, Mermaid Rocks

Above is another stunning border from the Maniscalco Bondi Beach series. I recently helped a woman from Michigan redesign her powder room, using it to top a large-scale porcelain that looks like stone with rusty iron accents in it. The room will also have an underlit, translucent onyx countertop holding a beaten copper sink.

We’ll be sending her the tile from our showroom in Aspen. (Given that it’s an international destination, Balentine sells to customers from all over the world. ) This particular combo of stone and metal sounds so gorgeous, it makes me want to fly to the Great Lakes to see it.

Maybe she’ll send me a photo.

Maniscalco Metal Decos

The Art of Lighting Art

Landscape by Howard Post, Keating Gallery, Aspen, Colorado

“There are lots of reasons not to buy a painting, and very few reasons to buy one. That’s why I have to have good light,” says Gordon Keating.

Keating, who owns the Keating fine art in Aspen, Colorado, didn’t change the lighting in his gallery for reasons of efficiency or the environment.

The representative from CORE, the County Office of Resource Efficiency, certainly had environmental goals in mind when he stopped by Keating ‘s gallery with a bag full of green literature and a bit of a bribe in the form of a lighting grant. But Keating says that he’s “not a greenie.”

He does care a lot about how the gallery’s lighting is done though.

LED Light That Creates Clear, Beautiful Color

“I was skeptical,” Keating says. “But I did the research. I wanted to duplicate the color and clarity of the 120 volt PAR 20 halogen bulbs I had been using. The paintings respond well to that type of light because it has a warm color, and it’s clean. ”

Oil painting by Wilson Hurley, hung in poor light. Notice how the trees at the right side of the painting appear nearly black.

Same painting, well lighted. The trees now have much more green, the white is brighter and the sky is far more subtle. My digital shot definitely picked up the difference, but it was far more marked in person.

Keating replaced nearly all of the existing halogen bulbs in his overhead track fixtures with Toshiba E-Core LED bulbs.

No Change in Fixtures

The new LEDs have the same mounting base as the old halogen flood lights, so Gordon was able to keep his existing fixtures. (By the way, the bulbs have the same screw-in base that American consumers are accustomed to seeing on old-fashioned Edison bulbs.)

What Keating found was that LED technology has come a long way in terms of quality, bulb longevity and aesthetic choices.

Keating fills his track fixtures with 8-degree and 25-degree flood lights so that he can angle individual lights onto the paintings. To the left, you can see a demonstration. Gordon moved a painting for me so that I could see how different it looked under good and bad lighting conditions.

The Keating Gallery specializes in traditional art, mostly oil paintings and three-dimensional pieces, all with a Western accent. (The photography on the Gallery’s website puts my shots to shame, so go take a look at the true beauty of these works.)

On the day I visited, I admired three beautiful old Navajo bridles and several fine pieces of Acoma pottery, in addition to the paintings. (I’m a painter myself, and I earned a minor in art history at the University of Colorado in Boulder, concentrating on American Indian art, and I felt that these handsome pieces of silver and pottery really deserved a place of honor in this blog.)

“The detail in some paintings requires both a wash of light and a spot,” says Keating. “There can’t be any hot spots. It has to be excellent.”

Vintage Navajo horse bridle, Keating Gallery, Aspen, Colorado

“You also want light that’s more white because you want the colors that the artist painted to show,” he explains. “I have experimented with the color of the light, and have found that the 2700 Kelvin does this.”

How the Color of Light is Measured

As I explained in an April 2010 post about exciting new options in energy-efficient lighting: the color of light is expressed in Kelvin units. For example, the warm white Edison bulbs we typically have used in homes have a color temperature of up to 2800K. They shine with a pinkish light. A halogen bulb, on the other hand, measures  between 2800K to 3500K and it creates a clear, white light. A cool white incandescent bulb usually has a color rating of 3600K to 4900K.

Keating, who opines that he has become “kind of geek about lighting,” says that he has done a lot of experimenting with the color of different sorts of bulbs. “Some M-16’s burn red, or blue or green,” he complained. “That just ruins the look of the painting.” Because LED manufacturers are trying hard to sell their product, they are providing very good consumer information, and he has been able to find the perfect choice.

Controlling the Ambient Light

Keating’s gallery is located in a 1960’s building. While the structure is cinder block, its interior and facings have been rustically finished to fit in with Aspen’s architecture. Many of Aspen’s false-fronted buildings date from Colorado’s silver rush, and they have Western and Victorian features. Although it is reproduction rather than original, the building that houses the gallery features a ceiling rough-hewn and exposed beams and pressed tin tiles.

Pressed tin ceiling and rough beams of the gallery ceiling.

The reflectiveness of the tin ceiling is misleading. The surface is actually fairly dark, and Keating uses it to his advantage. It helps to keep the ambient light subdued.

When Keating moved into the gallery, he replaced some cheap looking chandeliers with some 1920’s era chandeliers. Wavy glass covers the light bulbs that provide the ambient light. Traditional Edison bulbs are used in those fixtures, and Keating wants the resulting light to be low-key. “It helps the gallery to seem bigger,” he explains. “And the gallery should seem kind of romantic.”

Lighting designers think of creating light in three layers: ambient light, accent lighting and task lighting. A art gallery differs from a home in that it needs far more accent lighting than ambient lighting. (An office, by contrast, would require a preponderance of task lighting.) Gordon needs only a small amount of task lighting on his desk, and only enough ambient lighting to make the gallery seem comfortable. Otherwise, the light should direct all eyes to the paintings — just as he has arranged it.

Fixing the LED Dimmer Problem

On the left, the PAR 20 sized Edison bulb the gallery used to use. On the right, the replacement LED the gallery now uses.

Through trial and error, Keating discovered a way to dim his new LEDs. Although the kinks are slowly being worked out, many low-energy bulbs, both CFLs and LEDs, suffer technical problems when it comes to dimming. The lights will flicker and cut out when you try to dim them. But Gordon found that by leaving one halogen bulb on each track strip, he was able to successfully dim the entire fixture.

He’s also pleased that the new LEDs produce far less heat. “I used to have to put on a glove before I could touch the lights,” he explained. “I  have to mess with them a lot to get the light on the paintings right.”

Because of the heat reduction, he’s looking forward to the summer.  In years past, he has had to use an air conditioner to remove the heat that the lights added to his space. “The gallery is at 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains,” he mused. “Air conditioning shouldn’t really be necessary.”

One final benefit he’s found; he has more elbow room. Although the new LEDs are somewhat pricey initially, they come with a five-year warranty.  Keating finds that because he’s having to replace bulbs far less often, he no longer has to devote expensive gallery space to storing light bulbs.

That’s a bright idea. It’s much better to use the space for art.

Two fine pieces of Acoma pottery at the Keating Gallery in Aspen.

Buying a Stairlift to Heaven

By Guest Blogger Marc Mendelsohn
Universal Design Specialist 

As we age and become less mobile, if we sustain a disability, or develop an illness, the access into and around our homes may become a concern that we have not previously considered.

A stairlift won’t take you all the way to heaven, but it can make your home accessible again. The price is far more accessible than a move to a new home – and adapting the houses we already have is far more sustainable than building new ones. Marc and Nicolette agree: building homes to anticipate the full human growth and aging cycle is a much more sustainable approach to housing.

Stairs that were not an issue in the past can become a substantial obstacle, and even dangerous. Multiple-level homes can make “aging in place” — living at home rather than moving to a specialized facility — a real challenge.

If you are an adult child of aging parents, the possibility of injury to a parent who is truing to navigate stairs may become an immediate concern.

Finding a home without any stairs is not easy, and moving to another home might not be possible. As a result, one has to consider what other options are available to create a safe and accessible home that will work for aging seniors, or for those living with a disability or illness.

A stairlift may be a good solution in dealing with a series of stairs, either those encountered when entering or leaving the home, or those inside the home connecting different levels.

Lifts for All Seasons
and All Reasons

These handy pieces of equipment take into account outdoor and indoor applications as well as straight or curved stairs. There are also special models for larger and heavier users.

One of the most important considerations in evaluating a stairlift as a possible option revolves around the user’s ability to transfer from a sitting or standing position onto the stair lift chair.

If a manual transfer is not possible, a stair lift is usually not a good solution.

Outdoor stairlift

Outdoor Applications

The choices for outdoor lifts are more limited than those for indoors, both because not every stairlift manufacturer offers an outdoor version, and because exposure to the weather makes manufacturing more complicated.

Outdoor units will work only on a straight run of stairs, and typically, those stairs cannot exceed 20 feet in length. These lifts will travel at approximately 20 feet per minute, and a 30-45 degree incline is the steepest they can handle.

All outdoor stair lifts include weather-tight components, and they typically use an anodized aluminum track to help protect the power equipment from the elements year-round. Most models available also include a waterproof cover to protect the lift while not in use.

Most models offer a choice
of seat covers and fabric.

Available Options

The track of a stairlift is mounted to your stairs. The chair itself will fold up so that it is out of the way when not in use. This allows for more clearance on the stairs — an important consideration when multiple people use the stairs. This type of unit can usually carry a passenger weighing up to 350 pounds.

Most of the seats that are available on stairlifts swivel 90 degrees toward the landing at each end of the track; this allows for safe entry and exit. The units include safety sensors that will stop the lift immediately if it comes into contact with anything on the stairs. They can all be installed on either side of a staircase and run off 115 VAC electricity.

Indoor Straight Applications

There are considerably more options available with interior stair lifts. They are normally designed to sit close to the wall or the stair railing. This is important because interior stairs are often narrower than exterior stairs.

A folding lift is a
good solution for
a narrow staircase.
Remote control
directs the stairlift.
Lift stops
automatically if
the way is blocked.
Your seat
can include a seatbelt.
Some models offer
a hinged track that
can be moved out
of the way.

One model that I am familiar with extrudes only 11” from the wall when the seat is in the folded position. This makes it a good choice for narrow staircases. As with the outdoor models, indoor lifts can be installed on either side of the stairs by attaching them to the stairs.

Like outdoor lifts, indoor models also swivel for safe transfer at both ends. They include easy operating controls for up and down movement, and they can be summoned from either direction with a supplied call switch or remote.

Most of these units offer a very smooth ride, traveling approximately 16-22 feet per minute. The straight-run units normally include 16-18 feet of track and can often be upgraded to as much as 75 feet, as long as travel remains in a straight line. Many indoor stairlifts operate off a 24 VDC battery that is kept charged by a 115 VAC power supply connected to the rail.

In the event of a power outage, most lifts will complete between 20-40 full runs on the battery assuming that the battery is at full capacity.

All stair lifts can be manually lowered to the bottom of the rail in an emergency, and they include safety sensors that will stop the lift immediately if it comes into contact with anything on the stairs.

An Option for Aching Knees

One option available for straight-run applications is a perch stairlift. This lift is designed for users who have restricted movement in knee or hip joints and who find sitting painful.

The rider of this lift — shown below with the red seat — will remain in an almost full-standing position while using the lift. The moving platform includes a shortened seat and retractable seat belt for added support and stability.

Some companies also offer a heavy-duty stairlift for larger users. These models offer the heaviest carrying capacity which is normally 500 pounds, although I am aware of one model that has a 600 pound capacity.

Heavy-duty lifts, such as the one shown below to the right with a tan covering, all include a larger contoured seat that measures from 23 to 25” wide with a high back. The footrest is reinforced for added stability, and the armrests are heavy duty for more secure transfers.

These heavy duty lifts will serve a limited-length run of stairs; they operate over a maximum 20-foot length of track and move at 10 feet per minute. They will climb a 30-45 degree maximum incline.

The SL 500 carries
heavier riders

The straight-run stair lifts are normally very affordable. Because installation can usually completed in 2 to 4 hours, labor costs are manageable and contribute to keeping the costs of these units down.

The enhanced equipment for heavy duty models make these stair lifts a little more costly than the standard units, but most people still find them quite affordable.

Interior Curved Applications

Not every manufacturer of stair lifts offers a curved stairlift option. The makeup of these units is more complex. Careful calculations are necessary to make sure that the rail will remains at the same elevation relative to the stair from top to bottom of the rise.

Many companies have adopted a state-of-the-art digital target system of measurement to assure accuracy of dimensions.

A perch-style lift like this one is a good option for those who have knee problems or other issues that make sitting difficult.

Models such as the Minivator, shown below with the brown seat, can travel around corners, across intermediate landings, and up spiral staircases. They must be tailor-made for each individual staircase.

I once installed a curved stairlift that included a 180-degree turn at both ends!

Most curved-stair models allow you to choose to add a powered footplate and swivel seat — options that allow the rider to enjoy an easier exit at the top or bottom of the stairs.

These models also offer a powered, automatic hinge solution on the track — an example is shown above in the photos of various options — to prevent the track from blocking a doorway at the base of the stairs.

The Minivator 2000 will work on a curved staircase.

The complexity of their operation, the options available, and an added installation time of 1-2 days, results in the costs of these curved stair units running 3-to-5 times higher than a simple straight stairlift unit.

What to Choose?
Start with Expert Help!

In all instances, a universal design specialist who is familiar with the options that are available – and which are useful to your particular needs — can help determine the best choice for your particular situation.

While it is also possible to obtain an opinion from the companies selling this type of equipment their opinion may not always be neutral, given the motivation to sell their specific equipment.


About Marc Mendelsohn

Marc Mendelsohn is an Architectural Design Professional, Certified Kitchen Designer (CKD), a Certified Bathroom Designer (CBD) and a Licensed General Contractor with Advanced Certifications in “Green” Building.

He has specialized in Universal Design and barrier free construction since 1992, and is considered one of leading experts in the country.

Marc has been featured on “The House Doctor” and has been published in magazines and newspapers. He lectures to college students and teaches Universal Design principles to professional associations.

His expertise in barrier-free design and construction brings credence to his work as an expert witness, assisting attorneys and litigants in building their cases and in providing expert testimony. Marc combines green/sustainable/healthy building practices with universal design in all his work as he believes that one without the other is an incomplete solution.


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