Sunday, 23 January 2011

Bird Attack!

We made a visit to John’s Pass on Thursday

This rustic edifice of wooden boardwalks lies somewhere north of St Pete’s beach at the end on the Gulf Highway. It was a bitterly cold day. (Apparently Florida is the only state in the USA not to have had snow at this time, and is experiencing its coldest weather ever. Even Hawaii had snow). We’d intended to see the pelicans, cranes, and other sea birds that normally congregate there, but it was just too cold and they were all sensibly hiding somewhere. But the hundreds of seagulls weren’t deterred. In fact having bought the only ice creams one stall-holder had sold that day, as we wandered along the jetty my friend’s ice cream was knocked out of her hand by one of the birds! And even though I held on to mine tightly it soon went the same way. We were surrounded by hungry seagulls and it felt like we were part of Hitchcock’s 1963 film. ‘The Birds’.

Earlier that morning we’d walked on to ‘Honeymoon Island’, normally a haven for Florida’s wildlife, but it was just too cold to walk far along the beach.

Then we drove to Tarpon Springs. This little Greek community seems to revolve around sponges. You see them everywhere. We had intended to take a boat trip out of the harbour to the sponge beds, but again the extremely cold weather meant that no boats were going out that day.

We called into an aquarium to see an alligator being fed, and to fondle the stingrays in a large water tank. I hadn’t realised alligators ate so little, and so infrequently. Apparently their main food consists of snails.

The previous day Mike and Kay Petryszak picked us up, together with Beth (one of our miniaturists colleagues from Durban in South Africa), to drive to Busch Gardens. This place caters for everyone with incredibly wild and wonderful roller-coaster rides for the daring, fun activities for the younger children, and wild animals to see in natural situations. A bright red steam train takes you around the park, stopping at exotic named stations on the way.

Amongst the many animals we saw – and close up too – were tigers, gorillas, giraffes, zebras, orang-utans, elephants, rhinos and kangaroos. The flamingos were especially beautiful.

Luckily it was another cold day with less than the normal amount of visitors or we would have spent ages in the queue to get in, as everyone had to line up and pass their ticket through a machine and then be fingerprinted in another machine (that seemed to malfunction most of the time).

I came back home a few days ago, (after a very bumpy flight which went on for hours) and am now busily painting an historical miniature to fulfil a commission I got whilst in Florida. And I’ve just unwrapped the superb book by Wes Siegrist. entitled “Modern Masters of Miniature Art in America”. As an elected member of the MAA, I qualified for a double-page spread.

On Thursday we were invited to dinner with Paul and Debbie together with Debbie’s mum and dad. (Paul’s 92 year old mother made the pie). Then we went on to see Rumpelstiltskin – the pantomime – at Woodcliffe Hall in Wargrave. Great fun, and fully sold out weeks ago for its entire run. The ‘baddies’ were spectacular, and the entire stage became a riot of colour with great scenery and magnificent costumes. We went home in a really good mood after we all sang ‘Super-cali-fragilistic-expialidocious’ during the finale.

Nigel O’Connor, the lockkeeper at Marsh Lock, is 60 years old (or will be on Tuesday) and I was invited to his ‘secret’ party on board the New Orleans last night. Val came with me, and after boarding the riverboat at about 7.30 we all assembled on the upper deck and slowly cruised down to the Salters landing stage near the River and Rowing Museum. Tracy had arranged for Nigel to be walking down the towpath exactly at that time to what he thought was to be a little curry dinner in Henley. When we spotted them (there were about 50 of us in the party) a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ rang out in the cold night’s air before they came aboard. Here’s Nigel.

Slowly cruising up and down the Henley reach for a couple of hours, all the guests were treated to a very nice curry dinner. (So Nigel got his curry dinner after all). It’s not too often that the New Orleans ventures out in the dark at this time of the year. It is a lovely sight, isn’t it?

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

A Journey into Space

The Kennedy Space Center is on the Atlantic coast of Florida - about a three hour drive from where we are staying in Dunedin. We've spent the entire day there and had a great time. The first thing we did was to visit one of the IMAX theatres. There we sat spellbound as we watched "Space Station 3D". And what fabulous 3D it was. We literally joined the astronauts as they lived, worked and adapted to life in space. The effects were so realistic I felt I could open my mouth and catch one of the water droplets as it floated towards me! When the show ended about 45 minutes later we went out into the sunshine and wandered around the Rocket Garden where a number of historic rockets are standing to tell the story of man's quest for the stars. Here are some of them.

And here is another rocket towering above the small figure of my young friend.

Next we boarded a shuttle bus for a tour to the Observation Gantry a few miles away where we stopped to climb the edifice and gaze across to Cape Canaveral and the launch site itself. A little later we passed the central building where you can see the largest painted American Flag in the world. (the stars are 12ft wide and each stripe measures 10 ft across.

And on to the Apollo/Saturn V Center. Straddling an enormous room is a 363-foot moon rocket. This is just part of it

After lunch in the Moon Rock Cafe (where else?) situated right in the middle of the sights and sounds of the Apollo lunar landings, we went to the Lunar Theater to see a depiction of the first moon landing. And very impressive it was too, with a real lunar module landing on the stage in front of us accompanied by the actual sounds and commands of that historic event. Back at the Launch Center, where this Shuttle Explorer stands

... we prepared to experience the sights, sounds, and feelings of a vertical launch in the shuttle. After removing most of the items from our pockets and person we were strapped in our seats in readiness for take-off. They told us this simulated launch just about exactly replicates the astronaut's actual launch experience. The shuddering and vibration, together with the incredible noise, was quite mind-blowing, and we almost chickened out at the last minute. But in fact it was well worth it - even though I suffer from vertigo! To round off a really exciting day we saw an IMAX 3D show entitled "Hubble 3D" - a really powerful story of the Hubble Space Telescope and the legacy on the way we look at the universe. I hooked up with a passing astronaut to be photographed before venturing into space

And now for something completely different - as they say. Yesterday we decided to stay overnight in one of the Disney hotels as we wanted to spend the day at EPCOT. Booking on line we chose the Disney All Star Music Resort Hotel. Here's where we stayed.

Not exactly the most subtle of colour schemes, do you think? Apart from a couple of hours of rain we saw quite a bit of the place - most of the individual country shows and buildings - Morocco, Japan, Austria, Norway and Canada amongst many others, and ate fish and chips (what else) at the British Pavilion.

We ended our stay at EPCOT with a really lovely meal in the underwater "Story of the Seas" Coral Reef restaurant. So as the evening drew to a close we said goodbye to Disney World and the magical glow of this gigantic globe.

Monday, 10 January 2011

A little bit of Sunshine

I've just popped over to Florida to attend the Miniature Show here. The Miniature Art Society of Florida is holding its annual exhibition at the Dunedin Fine Art Center. My young friend and I flew over on Friday afternoon, leaving a cold, icy England behind. It's not exactly tropical here right now but the sun is out and the temperature is a nice 62 degrees, so it's a wonderful change. My good friends Kay and Mike Petryszak met us at the airport and for the first time over many years of coming to Tampa there was no queue at immigration - in fact everything went very smoothly. Even the nine hour flight was smooth with no turbulence at all.

We're staying at the Yacht Harbor Inn which is right on the seafront at Dunedin. Yesterday morning we hired a Chevrolet from the Avis office in Clearwater. The one woman operation was quite impressive - and amusing - especially when she thought UK stood for Ukraine, until we explained where the UK really was. My young friend had bravely volunteered to do the driving - I'm chicken. The MASF's private view was at ten in the morning so we drove straight there. It's always an impressive show. Here I am (and I hate being photographed) standing in front of my five entries.

After a lovely lunch of coconut covered shrimps (or prawns if you are English) at the Sea Sea Rider restaurant in the pretty little town of Dunedin we wandered up the street where the whole of the centre of Dunedin had been closed to accommodate its annual two-day art event. We spent a couple of hours there wandering amongst the many colourful and intriguing stalls. Here is a sample:

A little sit by the pool

and then back to the Fine Art Center to the Artists Reception at six. It's always nice to meet up with old friends and as I've been coming to Florida for over ten years now I've made quite a few.
Yesterday morning heralded the main social event of the MASF year - the Awards Ceremony and brunch. As it was held at the Bon Apetit Restaurant in the Yacht Harbor Inn we only had a short walk to make. Here in Florida the Mayor had declared January the month of miniatures so an official proclamation was read out to the assembled throng. Then a pretty sumptuous brunch was followed by a number of speeches and the awards themselves. Later in the afternoon, being an elected member of the MAA (Miniature Artists of America) I attended the annual meeting of the MAA. Wes and Rachelle Siegrist have just published a beautiful book entitled Modern Masters of Miniature Art in America. I had reserved two copies and was very flattered to be given a double- page spread in it. The day finished with a big get together at the Perkins Restaurant. Here are a few of the guests.

Now we are planning a trip to EPCOT tomorrow.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Wishing You a Happy New Year

Well Christmas has come and gone – as has the snow. I spent a pretty quiet Christmas – I like being with the children at this time of the year but they were all away on Christmas day. We did have a nice get together at Louisa’s house though – here are some of the family.

The Fireworks in London to usher in 2011 were spectacular – easily the best ever. This is just a little sample – I’ll add a short video at the end of this blog.

Yesterday my young friend and I drove to Redhill in Surrey to see Paul and Debbie in the pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk. And what a good evening it was. Great sets and fabulous costumes, good dance routines, a very large stage, and lots of legroom where we sat. We had a quick chat with Paul and Debbie backstage afterwards before the journey home.

On New Year’s Day nothing much was open, but we did find a ‘Rain Forest’ near Newbury. The tropical temperature reminded me of my recent visit to the Far East. We couldn’t find the python, and hoped it hadn’t escaped, but while looking for it I saw a bit of a foot - complete with grey trainers – half hidden in the sandy floor. Perhaps it was the remains of the python’s last meal? But no, as my young friend pointed out, it was the reflection of my own foot in the glass! Here are a couple of the creatures we happened across.

On the way home we stopped for lunch at The Royal Oak in Yattendon – famed for its superb food. Being a garlic hater I initially sent my Butternut Squash soup back because it reeked of garlic, but it came back with the chef's assurance that there was no garlic in it at all. So how come it smelled like garlic but, I must admit, didn’t taste of garlic. The ingredients, they told me, contained truffle oil. I rang Mike North when I got home. He’s the Olive Oil expert, who told me, yes truffle oil does smell of garlic. You live and learn.

I’m still waiting for the results of the PET scan I had at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford just before Christmas. Unlike previous scans I’ve had, this time I had to spend an hour and a half sitting in what can only be described as a cupboard with its door open while something – I know not what – was injected into my arm. Finally I was led into the scanning room. As I was due to become radioactive (for 6 hours after the scan I couldn’t be near pregnant women or children) there were signs everywhere with the nuclear symbol prominently displayed. I had to remain completely still for half an hour with my arms raised above my head while the gigantic machine slowly moved over my body. At least I was lying down, but half an hour is a long time – especially when the urge to scratch one’s my nose or ear is forbidden!

Not only have I at last finished the painting I call “Très Riches Heures” but have experimented with it and have decided to use it for my 2011 Christmas card. The cover will be just white with a small amount of calligraphy, but when the card is opened the painting will straddle both pages. (Click on the picture to see it bigger – you might be able to detect some of the gold in the painting).

Did you see the ‘Arena’ television programme about Rolf Harris on Wednesday evening on BBC Two? If you didn’t, try and catch the repeat when it comes around. I was entranced for the whole hour and a half as it not only showed the series of very large ‘Midsummer Nights Dream’ paintings Rolf has been working on over the last few months, but we were entertained to scores of clips from his past. It was nice to see Alwen looking so radiant and showing us around her own studio. What a natural and loving couple they are.

 I frequently visit Rolf in his studio and watch the progress of his paintings. The series of paintings were quite special as they were the realisation of one of his latent ambitions. This is a recent photograph I took of him which shows four of the five paintings that featured in the Arena programme.

If you’d like to see all five of the original paintings in all their glory Clarenden Fine Art will be exhibiting them at their very prestigious gallery at 46 Dover Street in London from the 5th of January till the end of the month.

Now I must get started on a painting I’ve been planning for a while. It’s of the Duke of Edinburgh and the three stained glass windows he commissioned to be erected in Windsor Castle to commemorate the disastrous fire which swept through the building in 1992. I hope to finish it in time for Prince Philip's 90th birthday this year.

This is the view of part of my living room taken from the depths of my armchair. Just about all the walls in my flat are completely covered with my paintings – maybe I’ll have an exhibition some time and hopefully sell a few to make room for some of the others that are stacked up in the spare room

Finally here’s a taster of the New Year’s Day fireworks. Not the best quality video – I messed up my HD recording.