Rocks, Sand, Water

That time I tried to channel sculptor Andy Goldsworthy on our trip to Petoskey, MI. Andy Goldsworthy is best known for his environmental art and sculptures made of natural materials.

Beach Rock Mandala, Petoskey State Park, MI by PPJ, (2016) CC-BY-SA 2.0
Beach Rock Mandala 2, Petoskey State Park, MI by PPJ, (2016) CC-BY-SA 2.0

The location is the beach at Petoskey State Park, a place on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan called “Little Traverse Bay.”

Lake Michigan (Little Traverse Bay), Petoskey State Park by PPJ (2016) CC-BY-SA 2.0

I started out by looking for Petoskey Stones, pieces of ancient fossilized coral that the lake surf has polished into smooth stones. The hexagonal pattern of the corals is most prominent on the Petoskey stones when they are wet, so it’s easier to spot them when the stones are slightly submerged along the edge of the water.

Soon, I found myself picking up *all* the pretty rocks I could carry (not very many) and started making patterns in the sand.

Playing in the sand at Petoskey State Park, Lake Michigan (2016)

I vaguely remembered a story about a child finding beautiful shimmering rocks on a trip to the beach. They were so irresistible that she brought pocketfuls to take home with her. However, when she got home, she cried because when the stones were dry, they appeared dull and dingy, with all the beautiful colors gone. (I can’t seem to find a citation for this. Has anyone else heard this story?)

Maybe other people would add onto the mandala I started. Or be inspired to make some of their own, Either way, there was a certain beauty in the temporary nature of rocks arranged on a shifting, sandy beach. It made me happy that the rocks would stay at the shore and eventually be tumbled back by the waves of the lake.

Edit: Atlas Obscura, one of my favorites, featured one of my photos of the Lake Michigan beach in their article about Petoskey State Park!


DIY Detroit

knitting avocado seed coleus jam jar
Inspired by Detroit. by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015)

Greetings, Internets! It feels like it’s been a long time. I have been settling into my new city and new job, punctuated by various Jewish holidays. Even though I identify as an extrovert, the marathon of meeting new people and soaking up vast quantities of information about a place has been exhausting.

In order to process all this data into something approximating a meaningful “sense of place,” I’ve spent a good deal of time inwardly-focused, letting my brain sort things out. Also, as a practical measure, I’ve been figuring out a) how to acquire food, b) prepare food and c) attempting to care for/tidy up my new home.

Professionally, part of my job as an educator here is to inspire people to get excited about food and environment and outdoors by leading DIY projects (pickling, gardening, making stuff, etc). We’ve incorporated a few of these projects into our work time as training, which is awesome. It’s very empowering to be able to make something (bookbinding a simple journal! Knitting a dishtowel! Making soup!) even if it’s much easier, cheaper (and probably more practical) to buy it.

Since I do not know how to do many of these things, I turn to great Oracle and source of knowledge: The Internet!

So far, I’ve learned how to make old-fashioned rolled oats (we bought them in bulk, so there aren’t directions on the box.) Per the internets: Bring 3 1/4 cups water to boil. Add 2 cups oats. Cook until mushy. Grandma would be proud!

The internet also gave me a starting place for what do with a bag full of rhubarb. (Thanks, Martha Stewart website! You use too much sugar, but the idea of combining rhubarb with ginger to make fruit compote is delicious.) Also, really good with the oatmeal.

The internet also helped me develop “what’s in our crisper?” vegetable stock to make miso soup. (Various: Cut up various vegetables. Put the tougher ones in first. Boil until soup-like. Add tofu, chopped scallions, miso paste dissolved in a couple of tablespoons of water. Umami goodness!)

I’ve set up some avocado seeds with toothpicks in water (also, internet), rooting some coleus cuttings in cups on my windowsill (experience from this summer, which I looked up online).

Our home is feeling a little more homelike. My tummy is definitely feeling more nourished. These are a helpful counterweight to balance the “Alice-in-Wonderland” type experiences I’ve been having in this crazy, rough-edged, beautiful town.

Handmade Recycled Paper

close up of texture of handmade recycled paper
close up of texture of handmade recycled paper
Detail of recycled paper texture by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015)

One of my favorite arts and crafts projects is making recycled paper. It’s a wonderful activity for summer camp or spending a rainy day inside. It is a pretty messy process, so you’ll want a space that you can clean up easily. It is helpful to have access to an electrical outlet and a source of running water.


  • Used printer/copier paper (white or colors), scraps of construction paper or tissue paper
  • Plastic bins or aluminum lasagna pans
  • Blender (that you won’t want to use for food purposes)
  • Cups/containers
  • Sponges
  • Flat, clean piece of corrugated cardboard
  • *Deckles – screens for squeezing out pulp (see notes below)

shredded paper

Rip used paper into 1 inch pieces. I usually just use whatever I can find in the recycling bin. I highly recommend adding colored bits of paper (from scrap construction paper, tissue paper or colored copier paper) to the white copier paper.
Note on combining colors: I usually keeps a “warm” colors batch (i.e. red, pinks, orange, yellow) separate from a “cool” colors batch (i.e. green, blue, purple) because mixing them tends to create a muddy blend. However, I encourage you to experiment and find your own favorite color combinations – some of the most interesting pieces of paper I’ve seen have looked rather dubious when they came out of the blender.

shredded paper plus H2O in blender

Add your shredded paper to the blender. (Make sure this is a blender you will not use for food preparation. It is very hard to clean out the paper pulp residue!) Cover the paper with water. Hot water will help break down the glues and dyes in the paper more quickly and create a smoother pulp (shredded paper and water slurry). You can use hot tap water or heat some up in an electric kettle. However, add enough cold water so that kids won’t burn themselves on the pulp. Make sure lid is on tightly before blending. When blending, every batch will come out a little differently. Experiment with different consistencies.

pulp after blending

After blending, add more cold water to continue to thin out the pulp. Transfer pulp to aluminum pan.
pan of pulp

At this point, take a look at the deckle. Deckles are special screens used to squeeze water out of the paper pulp and create a flat sheet of paper. I made my own deckles out of 4 x 6 inch wooden picture frames I purchased at the craft store. I took polyester pet mesh (for screen doors, also available at the craft store), cut out pieces of the fabric and stapled them with a heavy duty stapler to the wooden picture frames.

Deckle: Flat side facing up
Deckle: Flat side facing up

The deckle has two sides: A flat side and an indented side. You want to hold the deckle flat side up.

pouring pulp

Use a small cup (a repurposed yogurt container works really well) to transfer pulp from the pan onto the flat side of the deckle. May sure you hold the deckle over the pan to contain dripping water.

deckle with pulp

As you cover the deckle with pulp, use your hand or sponge to press the pulp against the screen of the deckle. This will help squeeze water out of the pulp.

Deckle on cardboard, indented side up.
Deckle on cardboard, indented side up.

When you have gotten your pulp as dry as you can from pressing on the flat side, take your deckle over to a flat, clean piece of cardboard. Gently flip your deckle so the pulp-side (the flat side) is against the surface of the cardboard. Use a sponge to continue to soak up water from the screen on the indented side of the deckle. Squeeze the sponge out into a separate container (like a pan or yogurt cup) to continue to remove as much moisture from the paper as possible.

remove deckle

Gently lift up deckle from cardboard. Allow your handmade paper to dry and then carefully peel it off the cardboard. Depending on your humidity and how much water you were able to remove from your paper, it tends to take between 1-3 days to dry. The completed handmade paper using this process will usually be about the thickness of cardstock.

recycled paper

Variations: You can add seeds or crushed flower petals to the pulp before spreading it onto the deckle. You can use leaves to create impressions on the pulp as it dries. An artist friend gave me rag paper scraps from one of her paper cutting projects that make the most gorgeous recycled paper.

Paper I made with kids on a rainy day when we couldn’t go out to the garden:

rainy day paper

Tangents for this post:

We also made a video on recycled paper making, if you’d like more information on the process. It’s a bit long (~9 minutes).

The Great Bottlecap Caper

Public Art Long Beach, NY  - Mural made from 24,000 bottle caps - Artist Lisa Bey - Photo by Robin Cembalest  (2013) via Tumblr
Public Art Long Beach, NY – Mural made from 24,000 bottle caps – Artist Lisa Bey – Photo by Robin Cembalest (2013) via Tumblr

One of the places I find myself revisiting on the Protopian Pickle Jar is the intersection of “Upcycling” and “Hoarding.” In my brain, “Upcycling” has the connotations of “Environmentally Friendly! Creative! Not Wasting! Good!” On the other hand, “Hoarding” has the connotations of “Mess! Junk! Pathology! Fire Hazard!”

I find myself wrestling with accumulating discarded objects for upcycling projects (“Look, shiny thing!”) with the knowledge that a) not only may I not get around to attempting the activity, but b) that there is something vaguely wrong about wanting to keep and organize these things (bottle caps, buttons, safety pins, etc.) in the first place.

I’m not inherently all that conscientious when it comes to tidying my personal items. Exhibit A: Random clothing, boxes, shoes, magazines and “stuff” strewn about my bedroom floor, oozing from the closets and creeping out of drawers. I really hate throwing things out, especially if I have a nebulous idea that it could be useful to someone in some way. However, if I know the “mess” is hampering other people’s abilities to use the space or be at ease, I am much more likely to implement a plan of action to organize it.

I was thinking about the pile of recyclables for Golem-building that I amassed in the Isabella Freedman art room. I carefully culled the recycling bins of the retreat center for items that would be useful for our projects with kids (toilet paper rolls, rinsed yogurt containers & milk cartons) and stored them in the art room. Each week, I would attempt to reign in the towering pile, or organize it in some fashion. However, it almost always ended up in a chaotic heap in the corner between a shelving unit and dresser, threatening to explode from its assigned nook.

It made me happy to think about the creativity kids would discover from using their imaginations on the pile of “junk,” even as I struggled with the physical containment of the growing stash. How could I balance the need for organized space with the potential payoff of storing reused art materials?

On a recent post, Hush, Lola! reblogged a fascinating piece about a woman in Russia who has covered her house with a mosaic of plastic soda bottle caps. I was completely entranced by this image, and ended up registering for Pinterest to gaze upon the many, many pictures of upcycled bottlecap art that exist on the internet.

(Sorry. Just lost an hour looking at bottle cap art again. It can be very seductive.)

Anyway, I was seized with the desire to start gathering colorful plastic bottle caps to make my own murals. Especially those really cool bright ones that come on baby food pouches. That the recycling company won’t take. (Or just can’t take yet.) Which just end up in landfills. Or in the tummies of albatrosses.

Then I stopped short. Because I don’t actually have the space to save all of the amazing objects that I think would make cool art projects. For me. Or for somebody. But what if there was a large-scale version of the Isabella Freedman art room? With organized drawers and bins and shelving and labels, where people could come to get free or low-cost repurposed art materials.

Before I lapsed into a fantasy of running my own reuse art materials warehouse, a quick internet search revealed there were *many* projects like this across the country. One of the oldest (founded in 1976), SCRAP (Scrounger’s Center for Reuseable Art Parts), is located in San Francisco. I didn’t get to visit on my recent trip to California, but hope to have to chance to see it in the future.

I found out there is a local reusable materials center (RMC) maintained by Wonderscope Children’s Museum of Kansas City. You can donate clean items to the RMC (they have a list), which the center makes available for low-cost to educators and kids groups. Some of my bottlecaps (and buttons andrandom corvid-esque caches of things) may have a new home in the near future!

Also, for your enjoyment, Bert and Ernie on upcycleables. I’m definitely more Ernie than Bert on this one, even though it all started with bottlecaps…

Story about Image:
Bottle Cap Mural by Artist Lisa Bey in Long Beach, NY.

Upcycled Art: San Francisco Airport Edition

After leaving the airplane last Wednesday, I emerged from the jetbridge and into the Delta Terminal at the San Francisco Airport.  I was travel-weary, but my attention was immediately captured by glass cases in the gate area that contained colorful objects.   These public art installations were permanent exhibits of the SFO Museum.

The display closest to the gate appeared to be sculpture made of old table legs, a cardboard box, a guitar neck, a basket and other random items:

Porcelain Sculpture that appears to be made from cardboard box, table legs and guitar neck
Martha H by Richard Shaw (2004) Porcelain with Decal Overglaze, photo from SFO Public Collections

However, upon closer examination, the entire sculpture (an homage to the artist’s wife) is made from porcelain painted to look like upcycled objects! Martha H by Richard Shaw at SFO Public Art Collection

Across the hallway, there was another case that held a brightly colored ancient Greek statue:

Cardboard Kore by Michael Stutx (2004) Discarded cardboard packaging, photo from SFO museum public collection website
Cardboard Kore by Michael Stutx (2004) Discarded cardboard packaging, photo from SFO museum public collection website

…made entirely from strips of old cereal boxes and other colored cardboard. Cardboard Kore by Michael Stutx at SFO Public Art Collection

Even if I wasn’t in Kansas in anymore, I was beginning to feel right at home.

Rosh Art Room

Markers, Pens, Pencils and Paintbrushes stuffed into container
Markers, Pens, Pencils and Paint Brushes by Liana_Kyle (2012) CC BY SA 2.0 via Flickr

When I first encountered the Isabella Freedman art room, it was tipping from its equilibrium state of “controlled chaos” into a more freeform “sprawling chaos.” There were containers and cupboards and drawers, full of splendid things, but there were no labels or an apparent pattern of organization. Items floated in an organic flotsam of “okay, fits in this space” and “Piles left while we ran off to do something else.” The “stuff” was rapidly developing into “Stuff.”

As Rosh Omanut (Head of the Art Room) for the Teva season, my main goals were simple: Make it so we can find the pipecleaners and markers and masking tape. Have enough useful space to run activities. Set aside storage space specific for Teva supplies.

This was a daunting challenge. Me vs. entropy. Taming the beast.

My first task was to survey the place and make a plan. I realized that the art room had hosted many programs of the retreat center, including TEVA, various children’s programming and Senior Camp, but had no centrally vested authority. The chaos I was witnessing was a re-enactment of the Tragedy of the Commons, an ironic metaphor for an environmentally-driven organization. At the same time, I knew the room was a treasury of unknown wonders.

After some investigation (opening and poking into drawers), I unconvered evidence that there had been a series of art-room-organizations and re-organizations, followed by periods of decay. Items were grouped logically together (paints, paintbrushes, paper, pipecleaners, craft sticks, etc), some even in trays or boxes, side by side with a jumble of random things. I also inherited a stash of clear plastic bins that had been purchased for the purposed of organizing the art room, but had not yet been called into service. Someone had also wrassled up some shelving units for bin storage.

Armed with masking tape and a sharpie marker, I set about my next task of containerizing like things. I labeled every drawer, bin or box with a piece of masking tape clearly lettered with its contents. Watercolor paints sets went into a bin marked “watercolors.” Paper (construction, crafting, drawing) went into a paper drawer. Glue bottles, glue sticks and tape went into another bin. Frequently used items like scissors, markers and pencils went into quart containers near the window. Erasers and rules, staplers and staples, rubber bands and paperclips. In my design, all had a designated home.

The TEVA storage space I found had been created by taping a piece of fabric around the edges of an open counter to hide the large rubbermaid storage bins placed under it. I found a sign taped to it: “Teva Supplies. Please do not use.” Though simple, the idea was pretty effective – out of sight, out of mind. The only problem was the tape securing the fabric to the counter wasn’t very sticky and the improvised curtain kept falling down.

One of my trips to town, I was able to get a roll of adhesive-backed velcro strips. I stuck half of the velcro (fuzzy side out) to the counter edge. I sewed the hooked side of the velcro (facing out) to the fabric. When pressed up against the other half of the velcro strip along the counter, the piece of fabric became a removable curtain! We could now hide the TEVA supplies from the attention of other groups using the art room space.

My efforts in setting up the art room and maintaining the space over the course of the TEVA season translated into a strange phenomenon: The art room became an extension of my self. People would ask me, “where is the (blank)?” I would respond unthinkingly “The third dresser, third drawer down, on the right” or “in the bin on the top shelf on the far left.” (They could also tell by reading the labels on the drawers and bins, if they looked.)

It became a point of pride for me to know where every single, weird and obscure thing in the art room could be found. When others “messed up” the room or misplaced supplies, I would become very crabby. I became very annoyed with people who borrowed “my” colored pencils without returning them, or left paintbrushes unwashed and crusty in “my” sink.

At the end of the season, we had a major campus-wide cleaning event where we had to pack up all of the TEVA supplies and put them in storage. The generic art supplies would remain in the art room, for other Freedman programs to continue to use. As Rosh Art Room, I was determined to leave the space in better shape than I had found it. In addition to a massive cleaning, recycling and trashing campaign, I created my magnum opus: A highly detailed schematic of the art room.

Each shelving unit and dresser was indicated, with my handwritten notes detailing the contents of each. I included helpful landmarks such as the doors, windows and plant to help orient map users to the spatial location of items. I hoped that having the locations marked on a map would give some institutional permanence to my changes, even after I moved on to do other things. I also wanted people to be able to find where I stashed the buttons or velcro or acrylic paint even after I moved on to my next adventure, when I could no longer easily tell them “First Dresser near the window, 3rd drawer down.”

I was incredibly proud of my accomplishment. In my map, the shifting chaos of the art room would be crystallized in a moment in time. However, the second I taped my map to the wall (and tucked several photocopies in a drawer labeled “Where can I find?”), my map was already obsolete.

Life at Isabella Freedman doesn’t stay paused, even if I want it to in my memory. It continues on colorfully and chaotically, shifting all carefully laid plans into the hands of our successors who cycle through its buildings and sacred spaces. I am due to go back to Freedman for a couple of weeks this spring as a Teva educator. I don’t expect to be Rosh Art Room for those 2 weeks. Nor do I expect any of the stuff I left so carefully curated to still be in the same places. And surprisingly, I’m okay with that.


Purgatory Pie Press- The Art Party  Photo by Amanda Silvana Coen for Inhabitat (2011) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Purgatory Pie Press- The Art Party
Photo by Amanda Silvana Coen for Inhabitat (2011) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I love projects in which something old gets transformed into something new. When I was a little kid, I had Laura Ingalls Wilder fantasies of sewing a quilt from fabric scraps my grandmother gave me to play with. (I found some of my squares when cleaning out some of the Stuff – not bad for an 9 year old!) I love recycled papermaking and upcycled envelopes. (I just spent a very happy Sunday morning listening to TED talks and assembling collaged envelopes while basking in the full-spectrum glow of a Happy Light.)

Maybe it comes from my grandma’s lifelong reuse-ethic (acquired during her depression-era childhood) – Maxwell House Instant Coffee Jars became fridge soup storage receptacles, vitamin bottles were repurposed as travel wheat germ containers (Yeah, my grandma travelled with a wheat germ stash.) Even packages from grandma might arrive in boxes that once held raisin brain or rye krisps.

As an environmental educator, I was able to bring my love of reuseables into art projects with kids. Everybody fondly remembers childhood art projects constructed from egg cartons, 2 liter soda bottles and toilet paper tubes. One of my favorite activities while working with camps has been presenting a group of 9 year olds with a box of various recyclables and say, “Build a robot!” (Kind of like that scene from Apollo 13 where they say to the engineers “Build a Filter!” out of random parts.)

At Teva, we were trying to come up with elective activities (“Chuggim”) for our students with both Jewish and environmental connections. I had a revelation: “Instead of ‘Build a Robot,” why don’t we have kids “Build a Golem” out of recyclables?”

The Golem is a heroic, tragic, superhero-Frankenstein’s monster creature from Jewish Folklore. Shaped from the mud of the Vltava riverbank by the Rabbi of Prague, and brought to life with mystical Kabbalistic spells, the creature was a magical protector of the Jewish community of Prague. However, the Golem eventually ran amok and the Rabbi had to deactivate it. (Robot-Golem connection: Apparently, Czech writer Karel Capek, the originator of the word “Robot” in his play R.U.R., was inspired by the legend of the Golem.

I adapted the story for my own purposes. Instead of building a golem out of earth, we would be building our Golems out of reused materials. I scavenged and/or rinsed recyclables from various receptacles around the Isabella Freedman campus. Yogurt containers, milk cartons, cardboard, packing materials – whatever. (I amassed quite a stash of Golem-construction materials which I stored in untidy piles in the art room.)

I even found stick-on Hebrew Letters to create the Golem on/off switch: The letters “Aleph” “Mem” and “Tav” to spell out “Emet” (Truth)on the creature’s forehead activated the Golem; while removing the Aleph left the word “Met” (Death) and turned the Golem back into clay.

During the Build-a-Golem activity, I first told the kids a slightly-sanitized version of the Golem story and then had the kids break into groups to construct their own “Golem” from the sundry recyclables. “You need to have a backstory for your Golem,” I told them. “What’s its superpower and why did you create it? Most importantly, you must share the rolls of masking tape!”

Each week was slightly different – some kids (and teachers) from visiting schools really got into the activity and created amazing pieces. Other kids just played with tape or ran around in circles.

The deactivating switch came in handy if kids didn’t want to bring their golems home – instead, we removed the “Aleph” from their foreheads and reduced them to constituent parts for the next week’s students.

The golems were often silly and shoddily constructed with masking tape, but I still think of them fondly.

For other Golem-related resources, I recommend:
Marjorie Ingall’s article in Tablet about Golems
Checking out David Wisniewski’s Caledecott-award winning children’s book, Golem
Shalom Neuman’s
fusion golems.