The Cabinet of Natural Wonders – Graz & Wien part 4

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I have now visited it twice, the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, and I’m still not done with it. I have seen the most of the first floor twice and on both times it has been equally exiting. Maybe next time I will make it to the exhibitions of the second floor.

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Go in as soon as it opens. Trust me, you’ll need the whole day.

The tour begins with minerals, rocks and fossils and since it is an imperial collection, there are hordes of those. Last time my hubby said he would not be interested in the mineral collection. Yeah, right… We ended up going through every single display. There are the traditional mineral samples, cabinet after a cabinet, room after a room:

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Green stuff. I can tell where it came from (it reads in the labels) but I have no idea what it is.

While they might seem boring and a bit intimidating at first glance, give them a chance and look carefully. They are quite beautiful and intriguing. Like this miniature ice berg:

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A chunk of Aragonite.

But since it is an IMPERIAL collection, it’s not just exhaustive (after a few hours, quite literally), it is also breathtaking size-wise. For a scientific collection it would be enough to have a comprehensive collection of illustrative samples but an imperial collection is a collection of curiosities. It’s not enough to have all the samples – a bit like having all the Pokémons – you need to have the most impressive samples you can get and there is nothing more impressive than something huge:

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A rock crystal. There is a larger one but it’s so huge it doesn’t photograph well.

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A topaz. Merely 117 kg. For a ring, maybe?

Then there are the gold nuggets with one, the goldenklumpen “Welcome”, weighing precisely 68,98 kg. One needs to be exact with these things. It is a natural history museum after all. Which also means that it’s not just all samples and impressiveness. One of the really interesting displays is the one built in old wall cabinets explaining the etymology and the logic of the naming stuff. Why there is rubintyrann, the vermilion flycatcher in English, or zebramarmor and zebrajaspis. The minerals and stones are displayed next to their namesake birds and other critters and it’s easy to get the idea even when you don’t speak a word of German.

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The fossil collection is just as comprehensive and impressive. My favourite one is this large fossil of Scyphocrinites that used to float around oceans all around the wolrd some 410 million years ago. The amount of detail is amazing! You can click on the picture to enlarge it.

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Scyphocrinites in detail.

The museum also has few replicas of fossils of large animals, like this Devonian fish. The head alone was close to 1,5 m long. The real things are too fragile to be put on display, but the replicas are so detailed that it doesn’t matter much. Besides there are real ones too, even a real dinosaur leg bone that you can touch. It’s worn smooth and polished where the visitors have caressed it.

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It took an hour to draw this. School classes kept on getting in the way.

Last time I had time to draw other stuff too:

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A volcanic bomb about 50 cm high and a tiny trilobite.

What is interesting is that the human evolution and prehistoric cultures are placed in this museum. The evolution part I get, but the prehistoric art is slightly out of place. I suppose it’s an old divide dating back to the imperial days and the 19th century sensibilities that did not see it as art proper. After all, many old natural history museums also house anthropological collections which were considered primitive and therefore belonging within the natural historical and not art. And so the Naturlhistorisches Museum is where you go when you want to see the Venus of Willendorf and other famous prehistoric venuses. I decided to draw it from a slightly different angle to make it more interesting. What a bum!

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Earl Grey too had come to see the famous Venus of W.

When you start too feel tired and drained it’s time to head for the museum café. Seriously. Go and have a cuppa. The whole building is – just as its counterpart, the art history museum, is – a sight so see in itself. Don’t forget to look up while touring the exhibits as every room is decorated according to its theme with paintings and sculptures.  Take a look at the dinosaur room’s statues especially. The café is situated under the central dome which is much more modest than its counterpart across the yard:

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It’s difficult to drink your cuppa while staring at the ceiling.

And the food it delicious. Do try the traditional pancake and apple strudel. The price will double once you walk across to the art historical museum…

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Imperial Curiosities – Graz & Wien part 2

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While in Vienna for an archeological conference last November, I sneaked away for a visit in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, the Art Historical Museum. I entered soon after it had opened for the day and exited 7 hours later – and I hadn’t seen even the half of it.

The museum seems to have everything from the Ancient Rome and Greece to the modern and the contemporary, from polished gems to huge canvases. If you go through the museum following the chronological order from the oldest to the latest, the first parts are more like a curiosity cabinet and that makes it even more fascinating. It is easy to imagine that you are visiting the private collections of the emperor seeing his favourite curiosities – which most of the artifacts and works of art originally were. The splendour, the sumptuousness, the sheer extravagance is breathtaking. For example, take a look at this vase:

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Looks like crystal, doesn’t it, but it’s not. It is actually made of a single quartz crystal, a rock crystal, not glass. It big, huge, actually: maybe 50cm from the base to the top. And it was not the only one. If you look carefully, you can see two others behind it, and that’s not all of them. There are dozens of various sizes on display!

It’s difficult to comprehend the amount of wealth that made collecting on this scale possible.

Another impressive piece of craftsmanship were these structurally realistic and extremely detailed, delicate bouquets made of various metals. The patience it must take to create one of these:

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Nice, but I wouldn’t want to dust these. Suppose that’s why one would have an army of servants…

There were so many amazing works of art that I just walked from one to the next in complete awe. It wasn’t until I got to the Roman and Greek collections that I managed to draw something. The Classical statues and other artifacts were more familiar and they therefore did not left me as wonderstruck as the other curiosities. This classical athlete/prince was one of my favourites:

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The bronzes and other statues were extremely well lit, as you can see. The light levels were rather low (it’s not necessary for the conservation) and spotlights highlighted the statues beautifully. (Hihii!) But seriously, an even, monotonous lighting is not the best for three dimensional works of art. A more subdued and directional light reveals the character of the statues. Also, the museum had succeeded in avoiding one of the most annoying mishaps of museum lighting: the head of the visitor shading the object. You might have noticed this in most museums. Often the spotlights are placed so that when you get closer to a vitrine to have a closer look as something, your head and shoulders get in front of the light and you unavoidably cast a shadow on the object. No matter how you try to move, the object remains in shadow unless you move back and you again can’t see the detail you were interested in. Here this was seldom a problem. All the artifacts in these pictures were in vitrines but, as you can see, there are only a few reflections from the glass.

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The was my favourite one. It’s not a Classical but a Neoclassical sculpture. Sadly I have lost the piece of paper on which I wrote the artist’s name.

There ware so many incredible artifacts there that it would have been easy to become lost in photographing everything I saw. I did manage to fight the urge and drew these two treasures:

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I bet Eutropios lit up the room when he walked in.

The one on the left was a bust of a really sour looking fella. Not your standard Classical head. Delightful! The one on the right was a small, maybe 6-7cm tall bronze figurine, a kind of an idol. Sadly there was very little information available in English in the exhibition. I really would like to know more about these disfigured idols.

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It wasn’t only the objects of art that were impressive, the museum building itself is magnificent. This, of course, should not be surprising. What else could an originally imperial art museum be! However, the trouble with imperial splendour is that it sometimes overwhelms the art, like here in the hall of classical marbles where the sculptures were lost in the marble walls and gilded ceilings. Sometimes you just can’t tell the trees from the forest (not the other way round).

The marbles hall aside, the building is an art historical wonder in itself. You could spend a day looking at it alone, drinking in all the architectural details, period features, and intertextual clues and icons. Sitting in the upper restaurant was in itself a superb experience. And the lunch wasn’t too bad either.

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Now this is a proper staircase.

It was a wonderful seven hours but while it uplifted me, it was also slightly exhausting. In a way is was a delight to return to the conference the next morning and to spend most of the day listening to various presentations. Not that they were dreary but they are less exiting in an electrifying kind of a way. More subdued and intellectually inspiring in other ways. Though I would love to be there when a scientific presentation gets the audience to jump up in excitement…

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Mountains and Imperial Splendour – Graz & Wien part 1

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I’ve still been feeling slightly drained after my dissertation (even though that was two years ago) and last winter was pretty busy as I started my work at the uni of Jyväskylä, Department of Art and Culture Studies last autumn. I work as a post doctoral researcher but the the bulk of my work seems to be teaching and tutoring which has sadly meant there has been very little time and energy left for my own research. Maybe it will be better this winter.

I did get to go on one conference trip last November. Me and my friend had a joint presentation in the annual archeological conference, CHNT – Conference on Cultural Heritage and New Technologies, in Wien, Austria. (The link takes you to the site of this years conference.) That was great! I first traveled to the city of Graz where my friend lives and spent a weekend there polishing up our presentation and enjoying the landscape. What a treat! the weather was magnificent, all sunshine, breathtaking mountains and autumn coloured forests.

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This felt just like Lothlórien! (The photo looks wonky because I tried this 360-decrees-setting that my cameraphone has.)

My favourite spot was this small chapel on a ridge in a small village:

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We stopped there for awhile and I tried to sketch the landscape but it did not turnout so well. Maybe it was because I was so in awe of the view, but even if I’m not happy with the sketch itself, drawing and painting it created an extremely vivid memory of being in that place and within that landscape. I will be writing a philosophical article on it soon…

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Not completely pleased with it but see it still makes me feel like I’m still there. That’s interesting…

On Sunday we traveled to Wien where they hold these conferences. The venue was (and still is) the humble city hall of the once imperial capital, Wien:

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The City Hall of Wien, Austria.

No, not that white classical temple. It’s that cathedral looking building in the background. Aye, it is HUGE. Just look at the size of the central courtyard:

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It used to take a lot of office space to run the capital of an empire.

Apparently they have a too much space for contemporary bureaucracy (it’s the computers, I think. They take less space than thousands of filing cabinets and endless rows of typing typists.) My friend told me that one third of the complex is now empty and the city is trying to find new usage for it. It’s not like they can simply tear it down just because the upkeep costs a fortune.

It’s even better inside. This was the staircase leading up to our conference venue:

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And the conference rooms themselves! Someone from USA noted that this was unbelievable as the conference venues back is States were just drearily dull grey, windowless conference centres. This, now this was something completely different!

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I think I could fit one of the chandeliers from the conference rooms into our living room. But I would have to figure out what to do with the furniture – There would be no room left…

There was, like there always is in conferences, some time for sketching. Here’s what I did:

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One of the rooms had old heraldic tapestries.

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No conference is complete without drawings of people from behind.

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This year there were lots of topknots and buns. The man drawn in black was an Italian archeologist.

On the last night we had the traditional conference dinner which this time was a bit more glamorous than usually. The conference was held for 20th time (in row!) and the mayor of Wien treated us with a special dinner. The tables were set in the official banquet room:

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Apparently there can’t be too much gold when you are decorating in an imperial scale.

I managed a quick sketch while waiting for the dinner to start. It does take some time when 200 dinner guests try to find their seats.

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I have no idea who these blokes are but they must be important enough to have their statue standing in a place like that. Marble, of course, and a gilded canopy above each one.

I sneaked away for two days from the conference (archeology is not my field of expertise after all) and visited some pretty awesome places and saw some things I have always wanted to see. More about that on the next post.

P.s. These days I just can’t be bothered to actually scan my drawings. The scanner I have is getting a bit too old for my laptop and photographing is just so much faster. That’s why the sketch photos are what they are. You can’t always have good lighting.

Edinburgh 2014 And Not a Drop of Rain

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Haven’t been to Scotland since 2010 and I have been missing it a lot. What can I say, I’m a Scotland junkie. I managed to talk my scout troop (Boys and girls belong to same groups here in Finland.) into selecting Scotland as this year’s group trip destination and so, after a year of fundraising, we spent four nights in Edinburgh. And you know what: it didn’t rain at all the whole time we were there. That has never happened to me before. All that rain gear – for nothing! I even carried my raincoat in my backpack the whole time. Not that I’m complaining…

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My first plane sketch ever. We left home at 5.30 in the morning and boarded the plane to Stockholm, Sweden, around 13.30. We changed planes and eventually landed in Edinburgh around 20.00. A long, long day. Usually I sleep in cars, trains and planes, I love to sleep in them, but not this time for some reason. So instead I drew these guys fast a sleep on the plane to Edinburgh.

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Monday was Tour of the Town -day and I didn’t have time to sketch anything from my tour guide duties. But Tuesday was day trip day. The famous Rosslyn Chapel was our first stop. It’s a pretty awesome place and the Da Vinci Code doesn’t do it justice. Go see it if you ever have the chance and take your time with the decorations. And listen the guide as s/he takes you through its history. You’d be amazed!

Tantallon Castle by the sea and close to the beautiful coastal town of North Berwick  was our second stop. It is a stunning place to visit. Just look at the pictures:

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The curtain wall of the Tantallon Castle. Notice the sky: not a single cloud to be seen!

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The eastward view from the castle. Only the curtain wall remains. The other three have (mostly) fallen to the sea.

And there is a magnificent view of the Bass Rock with its tens of thousands of sea birds from the castle too. You can see the Rock all the way from the Edinburgh Castle or the Arthur’s Seat on a clear day, but from the Tantallon you can see that it is white because of the birds, the largest colony of gannets in the world in fact. The bird droppings may have something to do with it too. The island is actually about 300 million years old volcanic plug, just like the rock on which the Edinburgh Castle is built. How cool can one tiny island get?

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Yes, that’s a lot of birds.

That Tuesday was A Great Day. I just wish I had had more time at the castle. There were so many things to draw there.

On Wednesday everyone roamed the city on their own. Some went shopping. Some went to the Edinburgh Zoo which they said was really good, especially because the animals had ample enclosures. I went to visit the National Museum of Scotland. In 2010 the older, originally Victorian part of the building was still under renovations so I went to see how it had turned out. Boy, was I in for a treat! I had a cuppa and a delicious sandwich first (I had taken three persons to the Edinburgh Castle first. I’m a life member of Historic Scotland and can take two adult guests with me for free.) before I begun to roam the place. The trouble was I had a sore throat and probably some temperature too, and I simply did not have the energy to see as much as I would have liked to. So I concentrated my energies on the natural world.

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I learned that there is a reason why the tip of the tail of the stoat is black: it actually confuses birds of pray that try to catch a stoat and deceives the attacker into aiming at the tail instead of the stoats head giving stoat time to flee. Never knew that. What a neat trick!

The main attraction for me, however, was the temporary exhibition of Ming Dynasty, my favourite Chinese dynasty. It wasn’t particularly big exhibition but they had some absolutely masterful objects of art on display. Sadly my flu-infected mind forgot instantly all the names of the artists I liked. One particularly brilliant ink painting was a huge picture of a stormy sea. I almost could feel the gale tearing the sails and feel the waves heaving and taste the salt of the sea. All that using only white paper and black ink. Stunning. I could have spend hours staring at the paintings alone. There was so much to learn.

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He looks a bit too cocky to be the Buddha.

I wanted to draw something just to remorise the exhibition. Of course there was no seating, not even those folding chairs you can often find in museums, and I was getting really tired quickly. What would I have given for a seat! Luckily there was only one other person in the exhibition at that time so I could drop my backpack on the floor and scatter my drawing stuff around it without bothering anyone. I just wish I had had the energy to draw more.

I new I had to take off soon. My energies were just about spent. However, I braved the Animal World -exhibition first. There was so many interesting things there but all I could manage was this quick sketch of the African elephant and the jaw bones of a blue whale. I knew blue whales are huge, enormous. So big, in fact, that you can drive a Volkswagen Beetle in its aorta (David Attenborough said so on the telly, so it must be true), but to think that its tongue weighs as much as an African elephant! Oh boy, that’s big for you.

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That’s all from Scotland for now. Next trip me and my partner make might be a week in London and just the British Museum. That would be so sweet…

The Coolest Thing to See in The Kon-Tiki Museum Is…

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… this scull with a picture of a fish carved into its forehead. It’s from the Easter Islands and they suspect that it probably is the scull of a shaman or a tribal leader. Why else would you carve a fish into it? Of course it must be some how special but maybe it was made special by carving the fish into it and not the other way round. But who knows. This is the handicap of archeology: there are seldom eyewitnesses around to tell us what the heck it is that we just unearthed.

I mentioned the Kon-Tiki Museum in the previous post but it’s such a special museum that it deserves to get a post of its own. Kon-Tiki is the name of the balsa raft the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and his crew used to cross the Pacific Ocean in 1947 just to prove that the South American cultures could have sailed all the way to the west across the ocean. Heyerdahl did a similar trip a cross the Atlantic on the Ra II made out of papyrus reeds to prove that you could do that with ancient Egyptian technology. The first Ra didn’t make it. The second proved the point. Heyerdahl had other adventures too but these are the famous ones. Not only did he prove that you could manage such journeys using ancient technology but his crew collected a lot of data about the state of the oceans during their travels. The dark, stone-looking lumps of oil on display in the museum are –. Well, let’s just say that they do make you think. Anyhow, the rafts are pretty awesome too and the exhibitions are breath taking.

But I have to admit, sculls and skeletons and any human remains in museums make me wonder if they really should be there. After all, they once used to be living persons. This scull, though, might be a slightly different thing since it used to be some kind of a ritual object so you could argue that it didn’t come from a burial. I don’t think its exactly okay to put on display human remains without the exact permission from the deceased or her/his relatives. But what about the mummies and other burials of ancient, long gone cultures? Burials are often the only thing or at least the most informative thing left of their lives.

The drawing is from my notes for my dissertation on museum exhibition architecture. You can’t always draw spaces and display structures. You gotta have your occasional scull there too.

Time Warping on the Fram

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The last day of the Aesthetics conference in Oslo was a full working day followed by the conference dinner later in the evening so I saw an opportunity to stay in Oslo for an extra day. There may be no late, late night flights from Oslo to Helsinki but that’s besides the point. Who would want to drag their well nourished mind and body over to the airport in the middle of the night? So I had the Sunday to see what I had not yet seen in the Norwegian capital.

I had intended to revisit the Kon-tiki Museum – and it is a Great Place for Drawing you should go – but the last minute I decided against it and turned left to the Fram Museum. All I knew about the place was that it was a maritime museum that had won some big prize for its exhibition design. That’s it. The name sounded vaguely familiar but that was it. It doesn’t look like much from the outside (see the link, it really doesn’t) but I already had dragged myself to the Bygdøy peninsula (all the maritime museums of Oslo are there) so I went in. Was I in for a surprise!

The museum is practically built around the polar exploration ship Fram, launched in 1892 and the first ship built especially for polar explorations and to withstand getting stuck into the pack ice without getting crushed. It’s not a big ship, its one of the points of building an ship that can can withstand the contact with polar ice, but it is formidable. It is massive. Its hull bulks out in a different curvature than any other ship I have seen so far. It smells of wood tar like a proper ship ought to, and you can board it. You can walk on the deck, go bellow, all the way down to the engine room where it still reeks of diesel and oil and tar. The explorers – Fridtjof Nansen and Otto Sverdrup – planned out their three year expedition very, very carefully. So carefully, in fact, that the crew actually gained much weight during the voyage, not something that usually happens when its freezing outside and you’re drifting with the pack ice across the arctic sea. Somehow it felt like all that planning and care and the voyages themselves had got imprinted into ship itself. As if you could feel the enthusiasm and excitement of the crew, the arctic weather, the force of the ice when you’re below deck, the swell of the ocean under the ship when you are on the deck. Literally, I felt really weird when I first boarded the Fram and it took me some time to realise that my body thought that the ship was moving.

They have a pretty cool multimedia show running in the exhibition hall with enticing sounds and changing lights, but I don’t know. The ship felt like alive somehow. As if it had got stuck into two timelines: still partly out there in the polar seas, partly here and now in the museum.

You should go there, really. My only warning is that you might want to go early in the day especially if you want to draw. It’s a fairly tightly packed museum and one of the regular tour sites, so when the tour buses arrive it can get congested. But if you are ever in Oslo, go. I mean it.

Oh, BTW, while Photoshopping the scan I pressed the wrong buttons at one point and accidentally turned the picture into a negative. Look’s fun and interesting, or what?

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Gestures on Paper

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The Nordic Society of Aesthetics had its annual conference in Oslo (May 30th – June 1st) and the year’s theme was gesture. It’s a fairly complicated philosophical concept in Aesthetics. The subjects of the presentations varied from literature and visual arts to dance and even logic and the prisoners’ dilemma which is a game theory example of cooperation. Bit hard to see that coming at you in an Aesthetics conference but you’d be surprised. I had lot’s of time to draw. In conferences the presentations are grouped in sessions, 3-4 four presentations in each, so there usually is at least one presentation you’re not that interested in in each. And anyway you get tired as the conference lasts. The last day is usually quite hard on your concentration. One professor admitted to this as we waited for the check-in to open at the airport on our way home, but don’t tell anyone one that we thought so, it’s one of those things you’re not supposed to mention in the academic world.

My scanner is still packed away after we moved this summer so I just took photos of the sketch book. This is the first batch. I’ll post the last ones some other time.

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First day, 30.5., and I arrived early at the Oslo University campus and was consequently the second person to sign in. I had more than half an hour so I decided to draw the closed cafe in the lobby. Really need to draw more architectural stuff. Really. Rainer Nägele was the first keynote speaker of the day. His the professor of Germanic languages and literature AND Classics and comparative literature at Yale (Kudos!). Surprised myself with the drawing since I have considered myself ropy when it comes to drawing people and especially faces. I think the low lighting helped as it made features stand out.

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I took the second morning off and went to see the Historical Museum. I told myself that did so to gather material for my Ph.D. thesis but to be honest, I don’t need any new material since I’m almost done writing it. I just went to see cool stuff and to draw. They have a really great exhibition of the early Norwegian history from the stone age till the vikings, and they have some pretty neat stuff from the Americas and from the Arctic. The claw on the left is one of 10 or so polar bear claws made into a necklace, each being about 15 cm (6 in.) long. The stylised horse is from an Celtic silver tetradrachm, and on the right is a Hopi ritual doll (they had a great collection of native America stuff from both continents which are great to draw.).

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Left a bronze animal votive from Norway and around 1100-900 BC. Really cool shape to draw; beautiful and expressive. The bluish motive is a silver brooch of viking origin. Stunning in its design and the craftsmanship is spectacular (not mine, the silversmith’s). I could have stared at it for hours. Have to go back just to see it again!

The second day’s first presentation I saw was by Gottfied Boehm.

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Feeling tired of indoors and having no plans for the night I went to the Botanical Gardens all the way across the city. Oslo has a great underground system so it took me maybe 15 min to get there (get the travel card for a week, even if you’re staying only for a weekend, if you have any intention to travel outside the downtown Oslo. It’ll save you money and it’s so much easier just to hop on without punching in or anything. Plus it makes you look like a native!). I love botanical gardens or any gardens for that matter, and this one was no different. The spring bloom was almost over but I managed to see some lovely magnolias (God, they are glorious!) and the local speciality, the row of Davidia involucrata, the Handkerchief trees – the only member of its genus and really a sight to see when in full bloom. It has large flowers, about 20 cm long and they really are like washed handkerchiefs drying in the wind. Their other common name, the ghost tree, kinda makes sense too.

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Last day’s keynote was John Paul Ricco from University of Toronto. He talked about the process art of Felix Gonzales-Torres. On the right is a participant sitting in front of me during the first session. He had a really nice back and neckline and he remained absolutely still for a long while except for the head which he steadily tilted from side to side every now and again. That’s the why of the picture: I drew both stances into one. Like how it turned out.

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The last session was in a small classroom with long tables. A really tall young man sat in front of me with an empty row between us. The empty table hid his thighs producing this disturbing illusion of legless man and manless legs. The right one I drew the Sunday morning just as I was about to leave. One building close the hotel has these really interesting balconies with window boxes large enough for small trees and bushes. Didn’t finish it though. Probably just too tired of watching at that point. Maybe I will finish it one day but, hey, that’s just how it sometimes goes.

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Evan Thompson

Professor of Philosophy, University of British Columbia

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No one succeeds without excellent communication skills. Good writing is compelling. Good communication is convincing. Good training is rare. Welcome to QuinnCreative.