Answer: I give them to Madame Violoneux.
|I initially made Madame Violoneux as a vase (right), but she could certainly be used as a fun storage container (left). That's Right: Cow Shaped Storage. BOO YOW!|
Paper flowers are something I have been making since childhood, but the first time I got serious, I mean really serious, was in high school. I came home from a school field trip and made 100 blossoms in a single night. The unusual creative surge was spurred by, of all things, a cow.
Yes, I said cow. I know. Technically, it was a whole herd of cows. They were dressed up like Carmen Miranda and I was jealous as hell.
See, years ago, I lived in Switzerland. Yes, Switzerland. I know. It’s hard to imagine anyone who comes from a place so pristine would use words like peckerwood and produce fingernail necklaces, but hey, it takes all kinds. It was only for a few years but my time there changed my whole perspective on how I view the world. It changed how I think about myself. It changed the way I think about the people I never met before. It changed the way I think about you.
Who knew, right?
If you ever get a chance to go to Switzerland, especially the mountains, promise me you will jump at the chance! It’s an astonishing place filled with especially intriguing people. The term diverse doesn’t do it justice. The cities in Switzerland are known for innovative, cutting edge design, while the mountain towns, like the one where I lived, resemble something pretty close to that Heidi picture book you had as a kid; green pastures, cheese makers, cuckoo clocks by the dozen, and old men who walk the streets with wooden sticks and feathers in their hats.
My secret talent: I can yodel the Star Spangled Banner.
Jealous much? Just wait till you see the view out my former window.
|Photos from St. Cergue CH, courtesy of Vinylmeister.|
Every year, on a sunny Saturday in autumn, Swiss communities celebrate Désalpe, or sometimes called Almabtrieb, or Descent of the Cows, or, as my cousin John called it, The Bovine Beauty Pageant.When Alpine pastures thin out in the fall, the cows are led down to the valley in style, wearing huge bells on their necks and flowers attached to their horns. It's fabulous. Cattle play a critical role in Switzerland's economy and agriculture, so the Swiss take their cows very seriously. People in Wisconsin might talk about 'cow tipping' as a local right of passage, but in many parts of Switzerland, it's a criminal offense. Lesson: Don't mess with Miss Bessy!
|Photo courtesy of Mark Cowlishaw|
One year, my school took us on a field trip to watch the annual festivities in a nearby town. Ignorantly, I assumed a cow parade would be a peaceful, folksy event. I could not have been more wrong; it was a LOUD, raucous, blaze of color and noise, smelling of old cheese, fresh grass and cow poop.
You cannot imagine the noise! Back in the day, the giant old bells were made so that farmers could locate their herd from half a mountain away. These days, the cows still wear bells, but the big guns only come out for the holiday. And, if it wasn't LOUD enough already, the town folk like to trumpet the arrival of the cows by playing their alphorns.
The lion tamer on the field trip that day was the principal of our tiny school, a kind man from Minnesota who greeted everyone with a smile. He was one of those people who never forgot your name. I appreciate that in people, don't you?
He fit right in with the rest of the happy local Swiss folk that day, but his wife, Madame Violoneux, did not blend so well. They were an odd pair, everyone agreed. Where Mr. Violoneux was warm and friendly with strangers, Madame Violoneux was distant and suspicious. She was a tiny thing with ice blue eyes, and although it was a solid year before I saw her truly smile, it was easy to imagine her as a giggly baby. You know, one of those beautiful old soul babies who look at you with wariness and wonder. And still, as intimidating as she was, there was still something child-like about her presence.
She was a stickler for manners. Rumor had it when a boy wore a hat in her class she made him eat it. Not the whole thing, but just chew on the brim for a minute with everyone watching. I’m not sure if that story was just a rumor but deep inside I sure hope it’s true.
She was never exactly mean, but she didn’t bother with typical teacher niceties. There were no pats on the back or good morning greetings. People didn't mess around her classroom. Expectations ran high. With most educators, when you turn in mediocre work, it comes back with a grade, a few marks and a message at the top that goes something like
Try harder. Rework that last section and you’ll get it next time!
Madame Violoneux once returned a trigonometry test to me that read
Your can’t be serious.
I was crushed.
Even as an adult, I'm still not sure what it was about Madame Violoneux that made me want to try harder. Maybe it’s because I was a spoiled-rotten adolescent seeking approval from a Spartan-style authoritarian. Maybe it’s because she was more discriminating with her praise than every one else. Maybe it's because underneath her exterior, I wanted to think she cared more than any one else. Maybe it’s because she could chew you up and spit you out before you could say Double Angle Formula.
When I was tiny, my Aunt Honey Shirley once told me an ancient Scandinavian folk legend about a Magic Fog/Clould/G-d/Thing (name, anyone?) that would gently sweep over towns and villages, weighing the soul of every person in its path. If your soul was heavy, you would remain on the ground, but if your soul was light, you would be carried away in the fog. The souls of children weighed the heaviest and the soles of mean people weighed the least.
Moral of the story: be nice or you will get eaten by a fog monster.Lovely tale. Scared the crap out of me every time it got cloudy outside, but a lovely tale just the same. Ever since Honey Shirley told me about them, I started looking for fog monsters.
Fog monsters are everywhere!
I'm talking about people who can measure your soul. That must make me sound crazy, but I swear it’s true. They are out there. Everywhere. I’m talking about people you already know–people who can look in your eyes and see you for what you are. They will measure your worth in an instant and decipher your value. They won’t tell you how much you measure up, but if you are light on soul, they will gobble you up and move on to the next person right quick.
There wasn’t a doubt in my mind: Madame Violoneux was a fog monster. The woman could see my soul. She could see yours too. For me, back then, this was something to worry about. My teenage self-absorption was out of control and I could have been eaten by a fog monster at any time.
So that day in the town, with all the cows marching by with people watching, I was watching Madame Violoneux. With all the color and sound and clapping and giggles and happiness in the air, I wanted to see if she would laugh. I wanted to see if she could laugh. If 200 cows dressed as Carmen Miranda didn't put a smile on her face, I don't know what would.
The parade progressed slowly. The cows were supposed to run by but they mostly just stood there swinging their bells and shaking their headdresses.
Cattle herding is a funny science; give cows an open road and they will run neatly, in a single file, almost as fast as a some horses, but put them on a narrow path and you may as well be herding cats. They won't be going anywhere anytime soon. If one stops to rest or dodge a rock, it’ll take ten seconds before another cow, 20 yards back, will have to stop too. It's like rush hour traffic with poop.
|Photo courtesy of Mark Cowlishaw|
Imagine my shock when I turned around to see Madame Violoneux standing directly in front of a heifer, holding her giant slimy chin in one hand, while smoothing a tuft of hair away from her horns with the other. From a distance I could see the cow was different--full grown, slightly smaller than the rest, brown on the bottom and all white from the neck up. Most of the cows had headdresses like giant, swaying funeral flower arrangements, but this cow had only four rumpled flowers on display. Madame Violoneux lovingly fluffed each flower, then pulled back and tilted her head to the side to look at the cow long and hard, as if to say Why so sad little cow?
This was unusual because, 1. Madame Violoneux did not look sympathetic on people, much less livestock, and 2. If you have ever been near a full grown Swiss heifer, you know they don’t let people cradle their head without putting up a fight.
There was only one explanation for such a curious sight: that little cow was in a trance as Madame Violoneux weighed her soul. The fog monster strikes again!
Eventually the cow noticed the rest of her herd moving away and broke out from under Madame Violoneux's trance. As she trotted toward me, sauntering tall and proud, I heard my Uncle Thomas’ voice ringing through my head in all his hog calling glory; That is one sweet looking heifer!
I felt like Miss Ameroca was walking my way. Like I should be honored to look up on her and courtsey or something.
Then she got close enough for me to see her face.
I had to turn away.
She was mangled. Half the left side of her face was sunken in. Her eye was gone and there was a deep gash running down the length of her snout. For a second there, I almost thought the deformity might be the mark of the fog monster, but in reality it was probably just a a birth defect or an injury. A friend of mine who is in the cattle business tells me young cows get seriously injured all the time, but usually they are put out of their misery before a vet is ever called in. Perhaps things work differently with small time farmers in Switzerland...I don’t know.
As the heifer passed, I grabbed one of the flowers from her head. Red crepe paper. The minute I got home I took it apart and used it to make a pattern, similar to these roses. Crepe paper wasn't easy to come by that night, so I made the flowers out of paper towels. When the paper towels ran out, I used magazine pages. When the magazine ran out of pages, my old homework did the trick. This went on for hours...
Making art is a funny thing. It drudges up all kinds of thoughts and feelings and insecurities. It loosens up your mind just enough to untangle the knots in your head. That night, I thought about Madame Violoneux and that cow. It rattled me to think, out of all the cows in the bovine beauty pageant that day, she saw the beauty in the one with the most obvious flaw. The one that made me turn my head away in revulsion. The one that got passed over by everyone else.
I don't know the answer, but I can tell you, in that single act of doting benevolence, Madame Violoneux changed my whole perspective on how I view beauty. It changed the way I see my surroundings. It changed how I think about myself. It changed the way I think about the people I never met before. It changed the way I think about you.
Since that day I have looked at cows as my own personal lucky charm. I don't collect them so much as I revere them. Not that my reverence stands in the way of a good cheeseburger.
For years now, every time I see a cow, I want to decorate the poor beast with paper flowers. I dream of bringing Désalpe to the cattle ranches of America. Something tells me the cattle ranchers wouldn't like it so much, but hey, a girl can dream!
In the mean time, until all cows can be free and fancy for a day, I like to celebrate Désalpe by keeping my paper flowers in a faux-ceramic cow shaped vase, appropriately named, Madame Violoneux. She sits on my dresser, next to a mirror. She greets me every morning and night. The flowers are tied to a couple of branches stuck in the back so I can replace and freshen them constantly.
Holy cats, that sounds like I'm keeping a shrine on my dresser.
A crazy cow-slash-fog-monster shrine.
To make a faux-ceramic cow-slash-fog-monster-creature vase you will need....
- One leftover Halloween mask. Animal masks are good, but those rubber celebrity masks work great too. Why not make a David Letterman vase in the foyer, or a Snooki bucket to store junk mail. It's a thought.
- One container. Should be slightly larger than the face of the mask. Here I used a square shaped kitty-litter box because, not only do I like the shape, I like that it will sit nicely in a bookshelf, making the finished product look like a traditional bust. A traditional bust with hidden storage, no less. Did you say hidden storage?!?!
- Paste Mixture. Any paper mache mix will do the job, but I like to mix 1 part white glue, 1 part Mod Podge, 2 parts water. You decide for yourself.
- Tape. Masking tape works fine, duct tape works better.
- Filler. I like to use the plastic bags from the grocery store and junk mail. Whatever you have around the house will work fine.
- Fibrous Paper strips. Torn up newsprint, paper napkins and coffee filters.
- Gesso. Not paint. Not glue. Gesso. I'm a fan of Blick brand Master gesso, but that's just me. A lot people skip the gesso step on art projects --Mucho Mistake Muchacho! Usually I urge people to work with whatever they have around, but gesso is not to be skipped. I am confident you will be happier with the end result if you use gesso. You can find a bottle at any art or craft store for less than $5. It's what painters use to prepare their canvas...like a combination of paint/primer/glue/liquid starch that simultaneously smooths and stiffens any surface. Try it. You'll like it!
- Gloss finish. Polyurethane or mod podge will do the trick.
2. Tape that sucker on. Use as much tape as you want. The thicker the better.
3. Plug gaps with filler materials. Tin foil is great for spots where you want to keep a smooth surface.
4. Smooth out the edges by covering any detailed patches (like around the eyes) with more tape.
5. Prepare paste mixture. Tip from Grandnanna: save cleanup time by lining a bowl with a plastic bag. No one likes cleaning glue. Not even Grandnanna. And she likes cleaning everything.
6. Cut paper strips into strips. I like mine about 2" wide, but don't sweat it. Dip them in the paste mixture and smooth over the base, criss-crossing as you work. For the first layer, I always try to use a few coffee filters around places where container-meets-mask. The filters are made of such strong fibers that they really help strengthen the joints.
7. Once your first layer of paper is down, let it dry, then go back and do a second coat. Embrace texture!
8. Once it is COMPLETELY DRY, cover with 2 coast of gesso.
9. (not pictured) After the gesso is dry, spray with glossy polyurethane or coat with mod podge. The final coat is what will really help give it the ceramic look, so take your time and don't skimp!
Not a bad way to make use of that old Halloween mask, huh?
Happy Fall Y'all!
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