The Royal Treatment

I have plenty of craft projects I could talk to you about today. Knitting, sewing, embroidery... it's all going on at my house. But I watched the Royal Wedding this morning and now I feel inspired. I'm a sucker for all the fancy pomp and circumstance. Yes, I need to talk about the hats!

The parade of hat nuttiness that was filing into that church this morning was a feast for the eyes of this American. But, in my estimation, the hat of the day award goes to Princess Beatrice for her Lady Gaga-looking 3-D ribbon. It just makes me wonder what sort of creative direction these ladies give to the milliner? Hmmm....maybe...."I need something really tall, and nuts...that will show up those b*stards for not inviting my mother!" One can only speculate.

Beatrice is the one on the right...
Seeing all these hats this morning has compelled me to share my own unique "hat" obsession with you - my antique hat pin collection. I credit my mother for starting me off with a few beautiful ones she found at an estate sale about 15 years ago. Since then, I've been picking them up here-and-there at antique shops and estate sales. As collectibles go, hat pins are awesome on a couple levels. First off, they can be really gorgeous. Here are some images from my modest collection:

I thought the corgi was a good one to highlight on such a royal day.
Some of the collection in their holders.
One of my more curious, hand-carved pins.
The second great thing about this kind of collection is the size of the pins. They don't take up very much room and they are easy to display. With all my recent pontificating about living sensibly, you'd think that I'd be against collecting things. Nonsense! I am against hording and collections that sit in boxes. However, I'm totally for surrounding yourself with beauty or collections that can be displayed tastefully.

So these pins sit on my bedroom dresser where I can appreciate them and muse about with who and where they have been in their lives. Man, I love objects with a history of their own.



If exasperation had a face, it would look like me.

Way back in September of 2010, I wrote about a shawl that I was knitting. At that point, I was about 40% done with the pattern - having taken the summer off from it - and speculated that I would complete the project by the end of October. naive I can be at times.

The Garden Party Shawl, by Two Old Bags, is a relatively simple pattern with lovely eyelet rows and piquot edge detailing. (Don't judge it by the photo on the pattern, which shows the less desirable ruffle edge - entirely too girly for me.) I had never knit something this large but the pattern was so easy, I couldn't imagine having any problems at all.

I saw the pattern knit up at the 2010 Madison Knitter's Guild Knit-In. The sample, completed project was done with Irish wool which has such a stiff hand that the end-result was really crisp and beautiful. However, Irish wool is entirely too scratchy for me so I chose a sturdy but soft 100% wool from Galway, in a completely inoffensive mushroom color (of course.)

So, in September, when I blogged about this project, I was cranking away on the pattern and making great progress. It started getting tedious because the thing just grows and grows with each row so, by the time you're at the first bound-off edge, you've got about 350 stitches on the needles. My dogs loved it. They would sit on my lap and I'd cover them up with the work-in-progress. It was very warm and cuddly under there.

I quickly got to the first bind off, at which point you do a piquot edge and then pick up the stitches behind it and resume knitting the pattern for another 20 rows. In that second tier, the pattern calls for one more horizontal eyelet row in the middle of the tier. Yeah... Therein lies my problem.

Perfect little eyelet rows
For god-knows how many rows - about a bajillion, I think - my pattern was perfect. There was a lovely, straight, double-eyelet row down the center with horizontal eyelet rows coming in to meet the center row. All the little holes lined up exactly the way they were supposed to. I was a thing of beauty.

And then there was the second tier.

Things seemed normal. There was no reason to think that anything was amiss. And yet, for some unknown reason, the horizontal eyelet row would NOT meet the center row correctly and, as soon as I moved to the next row, everything would be off by one - the center eyelet row would be shifted over, as if it had been hit by a car or something and couldn't line up with the rest of its brothers. Rip, rip, rip.

I tore the stitches back and re-knit this section four times. And, let me tell you, when you've got 400 stitches on your needles, it causes much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands. Finally, in frustration, I gave the work to my dear blogmate, Cassandra the Patient (and Lovely.) She tore it back for me one more time and, at that point, we decided that it simply wasn't worth the headache to try to force that uncooperative horizontal eyelet row into the second tier.
Second tier, sans eyelet row

 The Shawl Of Doom was finally completed on Sunday - and there was much rejoicing. Being able to wear and enjoy it now ALMOST negates the frustration that I felt while trying to finish it.

At the end of the day, the lesson is this - never, ever stick to a pattern that's fighting with you. Modify it, redesign it, make it your own but don't let the pattern beat you down to the point of wanting to chuck out months of work.

Not blocked yet, but it's pretty nice, huh?
 Now that I've beaten the shawl into submission, I'm going to tackle the Baby Blanket of Evil that I started years ago for my niece - when she was in utero. She's six or seven now. And her brother is four. I've got no idea who'll get this when it's done... but it's going to be done - mark my words.

- Alex the Willful

In My Room

We are in the process of sorting through mountains of stuff at my house. Donating, organizing, tossing... all in the name of sensibility. Unfortunately, the surface has only been scratched. This coming weekend we are hoping to tackle the basement. Ugh, the basement. It is riddled with things of little use and no beauty (thank you for the expression Jane Austen). It's time to be ruthless. We need the usable space down there because I have grand ideas. I need a studio.

Can't you just smell the turpentine in this room?
20 years ago when I was an art student, my studio was a messy place with smelly paints, drips, and splashes. It wasn't beautiful, but it was what it needed to be. That sort of work and environment doesn't fit my life at this moment. And that's okay, I'm having a really good time exploring my talents when it comes to stitching of all kinds. And, my new studio will be a sensible place for such work.

Alex wrote about her new studio room a while back, and I think it has been stuck in my mind since. My family (rightfully so) is really tired of the sewing machine on the kitchen table, stacks of fabric on the island, and yarn falling out of every closet when you open the door. The things that are not useful in our house are taking up too much room, making the things I use all the time the clutter. Ironic, huh?

There are 3 blogs that I follow whose authors have studios that take my breath away. If my forthcoming modest space can have even a drop of the charm of these studios...I will be a happy girl indeed.

Ana Maria Horner
This studio space is still under construction...but, ooh la can see where it's headed. Lots of storage, interesting lines, space to think and dream. It has been really fun watching this construction take shape over time, and Anna Maria has thoughtfully shared her decision making, trials, and excitement with her readers. There are lots of good ideas here to inspire my new room.

I can't wait to see how Ana Maria fills this space.

Alicia Paulson
This studio is pretty much the most amazing place I've ever seen. If I could spend my days in this place I'd be the happiest girl on the planet. It would be like working in an enchanted cottage. I will spend some time figuring out how to get a smidge of that vibe in my studio.

I bow down to your greatness Ms. Paulson.

Amanda Soule
This mama of (soon to be) five is a woman after my own heart. Here studio is realistic, practical, sparse, and charming. It is probably the closest thing to my studio reality. I love the way she welcomes her family into this room. There are children's drawings on the walls, and nothing is so fussy that little people couldn't come in and lend a hand once in a while.

I would love to be a fly on the wall when Amanda is making with children in tow.

So, with the dream for beautiful/sensible place of my own...I march forth to purge (and purge and purge) the house of clutter.


Quilts for Japan

No pithy title today - just a serious update on our last Crafting for Charity event.

These are on their way to Japan
As you may know from our previous posts, the company that Cassandra and I work for generously gives each employee a half day a quarter to do charity/volunteer work. It can be anything from Habitat for Humanity to volunteering at your kid's school. So, we formed a Crafting for Charity group that takes over the work room in our local sewing/knitting shop and spend a half day making stuff to give away.

Craft Hope: Handmade Crafts for a CauseWe've made sundresses for an orphanage, no-sew fleece blankets for an animal shelter, scarves for the homeless, and knitted hats for preemie babies. At our event in February, three of us decided to take on a pattern called the Take-Along Quilt from the book Craft Hope by Jade Sims. None of us had quilted before so assume what you will... Needless to say, we weren't able to finish the entire quilt in one four-hour period so the remaining work was waiting for us last Friday when we took our next charity day.

A week before our charity day, someone sent me a link to a blog post by the editor of Quilters Newsletter. The exact post was as follows:
Quilters Newsletter has long enjoyed a friendship with Patchwork Tsushin, a leading Japanese quilt magazine. So when Editor in Chief Naomi Ichikawa emailed to say her magazine is collecting comfort quilts for those impacted by the recent earthquake in Japan, we wanted to join the effort. QN will gather quilts from U.S. quiltmakers then forward them to Naomi and her staff, who will deliver them to those in need.
This is when I start believing in fate or divine intervention or something. How perfect is it that, just as we're about to finish three quilts, we learn about a way to give to relief efforts in Japan? The idea that our small gift might bring comfort to someone who has been devastated by the events there is really moving.

I love how they look rolled up!
 So, we hurried to finish all three which I'm proud to say we accomplished. They were boxed up and mailed out two days ago with instructions to have them delivered to Quilters Newsletter today. Sadly, they got hung up in Colorado because of inclement weather but they're rescheduled to be delivered on Monday and then our first-time, rather amateurish attempts will be sent with the more serious quilts to warm someone during this crises. When something like this happens, it really solidified why we do this charity work.

I hope that whoever ends up with my little quilt doesn't look too closely at the stitching.

- Alex

I'm a Sensible Girl?

I am a person who tries to pay attention to what the universe is saying to them. I take note of my dreams, the things that seem to catch my eye on TV or online, and the stuff that comes up in basic conversation. Sometimes a trend develops, and that's when I have to delve deeper into that subject. Right now I am being drawn to the idea of simplicity.

I know, I know...simplicity is one of those buzzwords like creativity that inspire people to the navel-gazing that leads to a grand proclamation about sweeping life changes... and in the end you just stay the same. Trust me, I'm tired of the hype too. So, instead of saying that I'm simplifying, I am being sensible.

This is what a sensible person's pantry looks like.
If I'm being honest, living more simply means being more like my Great-Grandmother. And she was wonderfully sensible. Her home was warm and inviting with useful handmade items everywhere. It was neat as a pin (from basement to walk-up attic) because there was a place for everything. Cleaning for her must have been a snap because there was no time spent on clutter-clearing. She had beautiful things that you could really appreciate because there weren't distractions everywhere. That house had the vibe I'm striving to manifest in my own home.

Putting stuff in bins is not cleaning.

Sensible Home = Peaceful Mind

Much like the addict who hits rock bottom and never touches their vice again, I think I've had enough of the clutter in my world. Literally and mentally. First and foremost, I need to pare down. Shed things that are no longer useful and make a sensible place for everything I do need. This is quite a task! My first step is to fill my car with items to be donated. Then I can start to evaluate my space and find sensible places for sensible items.

The donation box is one of my best friends.
Once I get a handle on my environment, then I can turn my attention to the other parts of my life that need this treatment. Sensible foods, sensible gardening, sensible yada yada... happily turning back the clock 75 years and sharing the wins and losses with you.


Jewels of Denial

I was an artistic kid. Right on through college, my focus was on art, in some form. Sometimes it was drawing (I'm pretty mediocre), sometimes pottery (also mediocre), some art history, and eventually interior design.

Then I got married, had a baby and, suddenly, didn't have time to sit around a contemplate the mysteries of  cerulean blue or Basquiat. In 18 months, all my dreams of being a boho artist in NYC were dashed.

Interestingly though, creativity can't be killed. It will bubble to the surface somehow, someway. For me, it came out in cooking. I had to cook every day and I discovered that I could get pretty creative with recipes. As a result of years of playing around in the kitchen, I'm a confident and decent cook who will, often, take risks with good results.

Once my son was in high school and fed himself most of the time (Easy Mac and potato chips, mostly), I found myself in need of a new creative outlet. In my neighborhood, there was a bead shop that had the most enticing front window filled with a gorgeous array of semi-precious stones and stunning finished jewelry. After a number of weeks of window gazing, I finally screwed up the courage to go inside. I wandered around, entranced by the colors and shapes, and was pleased to find that a strand of semi-precious stones isn't all that expensive. I also discovered that (like most craft shops) the staff was completely willing to help me learn whatever I wanted to learn. I had found my new muse.

Cassandra and I have spoken before about the siren song of craft supplies. When one starts a new craft, it's very easy to become enthralled by it and want to buy all the gorgeous bits that go with the new hobby. With beaded jewelry-making, very few tools are actually needed but it's not unusual to fall into the abyss of beads. As I mentioned, even semi-precious stones (including pearls) are pretty inexpensive when viewed individually. It isn't until you have a rubbermaid container full of them and realize that it's a few hundred dollars worth that the depth of the obsession comes to light. Like with yarn, there comes a point where I had to put a moratorium on bead buying. The rule (for all my crafts) is, "Supplies can only be bought with a specific project planned."

Another issue was that, while I enjoyed the action of making jewelry, I'm not an active wear-er of jewelry. I created hundreds of necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and more - sometimes even specifically FOR myself - but rarely, if ever, wore them. I'm not a big jewelry fan. I like it on other people and I like to wear things that belonged to my grandmother or mother but, in general, I wear the same silver hoop earrings and single silver ring every day. So, for the most part, I just gave it all away as gifts. Eventually, I stopped doing this craft because I figured people were sick of getting my jewelry for every gift-giving opportunity.

A rosary made by me
So, I'm left with a big box of beads, good tools, and an occasional desire to break it all out and start again. I won't get rid of my supplies because the day will come when someone wants a necklace for a wedding or a specific pair of earrings and I'll be able to make these items without having to re-invest in the hobby. Plus, every once in a while, I love just looking at the beautiful beads and imagining what they could become.

- Alex

Quilts for Japan

Happy Friday everyone!

This afternoon, Alex and I are lucky enough to be heading out to Stitcher's Crossing for another of our Craft Hope group meet-ups. Last time we started on some Take-Along Quilts and we are hoping (fingers crossed) to get them done today.

Craft Hope: Handmade Crafts for a Cause

We will be shipping off our finished products to the Quilts for Quake Survivors organization. Here is a small bit of information about this group:

Quilts finished and received by April 22nd will be sent to Patchwork Tsushin in Japan who will distribute to those in need. Quilts finished after April 22nd will be listed in our etsy shop with 100% of the sale going to Mercy Corps and Peace Winds.

Luckily, I think we can get these mailed on Monday and they will be there before the April 22nd deadline. I can't think of a more devastating experience than having everything taken away from you within moments. It feels really good to be able to help...even in such a small way.

So, I'm off to be a good global citizen! Talk to you next week!!


Spring Has Sprung

The time has come the walrus said to think of all things Spring.

Crocuses are the harbingers of warm weather - even when they're covered in snow. While daffodils and tulips are, undoubtedly, the most recognizable of all spring flowers, the tiny, hardy, oft-eaten-by-rabbits crocus is the very first flower to push up through the leftover leaves and the bits of morning frost. All hail the crocus!

Dead leaves and yard-waste pickup are the first spring-time stress inducers. There's always a layer of debris left because we get tired of trying to keep up with all the raking in the fall. How can one oak tree drop so many damn leaves? Really. And, unfortunately, the streets department won't give an exact date for yard waste pick up so you have to suss it out based on your garbage pick up day and how many houses are in a particular neighborhood and whether the crow flies at midnight. If you're lucky, you'll get your yard waste out before they come to pick it up but not, like, two weeks before because then the wind just blows the crap back up onto your lawn. *sigh*

Seed catalogs, garden centers, and (if you live in Madison) chicken catalogs bring the thrill of anticipation. There's nothing more satisfying than planning your summer garden. Planning. Not doing. Plans are grand and ambitious. The reality is usually less so. But the pouring over catalogs or meandering through the garden center fills your heart with inspiration and anticipation. Grandiose visions aside, the process of planning, buying, and creating a garden is an absolute joy.

Sunshine makes everything better. Warm, comforting, energy-giving, life-affirming sunshine. The days are longer and the desire to be outside is overwhelming. Fresh air, exercise, seeing neighbors who have been hibernating for months - these are all a result of sunshine. It's a powerful, wonderful thing. The sun rocks.
 Breaking out the bicycle is a sure sign that spring has sprung. If it's warm enough to comfortably ride a bike, winter is officially over. Of course, it's possible that you may wait until the actual day you WANT to ride your bike to realize that it needs to go to the shop for the spring tune up. The tires are flat, the gears need greasing and you're stuck waiting until the next weekend to enjoy the freedom of tooling around town with the wind in your hair.

The bike of my dreams

And, finally, the best sign of spring are those occasional days when it's warm enough to open the windows in the house and air out the months of closed-up stuffiness. Madison was blessed with a couple of those days this past week and, for the first time in months, the house felt light and airy and free.

Happy springtime everyone. Revel in the beauty. Soak up the joy. Feel GREAT about the coming months.

- Alex

Come Along for the Ride

As I pondered what to write today, I considered all the just-finished and half-done projects I could tell you about. I have a variety of knitting and sewing projects in the works, knitting projects cast-off, and a whole host of other crafty pursuits scattered about my home. Shockingly, the weather was glorious this past weekend and so I spent hours and hours outdoors digging in the dirt (which means it's getting time for some posts about gardening.) But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that what I really wanted to talk about was the creative process that allows me to accomplish all these things.

I spend a lot of my life "creating." I'm a graphic designer by trade and a crafty maniac by passion. As I result, people often ask me, "how did you think of that?" And, while there is no road map to a clever idea, every individual has some sort of creative process. Identifying and developing those sparks of creativity is the skill that we should all nurture.

I have piles of sketchbooks with ideas old and new.
The difference between a well-executed creative idea and a mediocre one, is learning how to push your initial idea to the next level. Let me give you an example of MY creative process and how I took a seed of an idea and made it into something I'm really proud of:

As you all may be aware, Thing 1 has a Sesame Street-themed bedroom. I have been thinking about drapes for his room lately but no needle has actually touched fabric - yet. To get to a finished product, I started by scouring the internet for Sesame Street fabric options. Of course. Buying pre-printed fabric is the second easiest solution for having themed curtains in that room (first easiest solution would be buying already-made Sesame Street curtains, obviously.) There were some pretty cute fabric choices but nothing that really "wow'd" me. So, I started deconstructing the idea a bit by thinking in terms of a single color or a single, clean pattern that would coordinated with the room but wasn't really obviously Sesame Street. I decided that, if I pursued this line of thinking, the curtains would have looked fine, but not have the impact I was hoping for. Then, sticking with the idea of simplicity, I thought about focusing on just one Sesame Street character. Maybe then it would be more dramatic? So, I sketched ideas for Elmo, Big Bird and Kermit curtains but it wasn't until I starting playing around with ideas for "Count Curtains" that I got pretty excited and could actually visualize what they would look like in the room. It's important to recognize inspiration when it happens and give it a long leash. I knew that, when I was able to fully "see" the Count curtains with such ease, this was the right path to follow.

This album cover is big-time inspiration.
The walls of that room are a lively celery green and the window is really large so the draperies need to be bold. I visualized purple velvet curtains with wool-felt numbers hand-sewn all over them. Dramatic, lovely, and unusual. That purple will be a welcome addition to an already colorful room.

Getting an idea from a seed to a full-grown plan is, to use an old quote, two parts perspiration and one part inspiration. Some ideas (like this one) have only a few steps to inspiration...some have many, many more. Sometimes pushing an idea takes time, that is why projects in my house are in various stages of "done". It is more important to me to know that I've done something well, rather than just quickly. Now, I will admit that I've been at this for many, many years so the process comes to me faster than someone who hasn't. It's true that creativity is a muscle, you need to work it out to be in good shape. If only I could be so motivated to exercise my body! :)


Magical Beans
As our regular readers know, Cassandra and I rather love spooky stuff like Halloween, Ghost Hunters, Catholocism, and psychics, just to name a few.

As a kid, I was already indoctrinated into the idea of the paranormal through the teachings of the church. Virgin birth, coming back after you've died, "knowing all" from some throne in the sky.... Then, as a young, disenfranchised teen, I acquired a "next to the cash register" book called Everyday Witchcraft. It was a pocket-sized paper-back with a black cat on the cover and it contained a short history of witchcraft, definitions, and a bunch of spells. While I can't speak to the authenticity of any of it and will admit that I never actually had the guts to really try the spells, there was always something comforting about the idea that I could control my world with these simple conjures. Witchcraft also puts all the power at the hands of women know... that was pretty appealing too.

Everyday Witchcraft
Not my original book
Recently, Cassandra and I had the opportunity to speak with Miss Cat Yronwode of the Lucky Mojo Curio Company. Lucky Mojo sells all the bells and whistles you need to do magic. The site describes itself as follows:
Lucky Mojo is both an online magic shop and a real magic store that you can visit. We carry a full line of hand-made spiritual supplies, including occult oils, incense, powders, candles, herbs, mojo bags, spiritual soaps, books, and spell kits for those who cast magic spells, love spells, money spells, and protection spells in the African-American hoodoo, Pagan magick, and other Witchcraft traditions. We also import and distribute folkloric magical, occult, herbal, and spiritual supplies
from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East for those who work in Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish religious and magical traditions. We sell retail and wholesale, both on the internet and at our old-timey, small-town occult shop.
We love Lucky Mojo for many reasons, not the least of which is the gorgeous use of retro graphics on the site. We are also very enamored of Miss Cat for her generosity of spirit and her amazing business brain. To get a great sense of Miss Cat and her milieu, please listen to her podcast The Lucky Mojo Hoodoo Rootwork Hour - I promise you'll be entertained.

In our conversation with Miss Cat the other day, she suggested that Cassandra and I participate in the Rootwork Recipe Roundup. It's best to explain this by quoting from the site:
All recipes submitted to the annual Rootwork Recipe Round-Up are collected into a small "church cook book" format publication prepared by the The Ladies' Auxiliary of Missionary Independent Spiritual Church.
The recipe must contain ingredients that, through their magical ascriptions, will address some condition. For example, basil is meant to promote a happy home and family, lemongrass is a cleansing herb, and fennel is used to "keep the law away."

I started looking at the food ascriptions and realized that I have one recipe in my regular rotation that, with a couple of minor tweaks, would basically contain all ingredients for luck and protection. So, without further ado, I'd like to present you with our entry into the Hoodoo Foods! Rootwork Recipe Roundup. Seeing as it's a church cookbook, we couldn't help but go with a one-pot dish... Enjoy!

- Alex, The Enchanter

One Pot Protection
  • 2 cans of cannellini beans (or dry beans soaked overnight*) [good luck]
  • 1 small, sweet onion diced  [protection and energy]
  • 2 (or more) cloves of garlic diced  [protection from evil]
  • ½ a bunch of collard greens, stems removed, cleaned, coarsely chopped or cut into strips [luck with money]
  • 3 (or more) tablespoons of mild yellow mustard [protection]
  • A few drops of honey or a pinch of high-quality sugar
  • Olive oil to cover the bottom of the pot
  • Horseradish to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add onions and cook until translucent. Add garlic and cook for approximately one minute stirring constantly. Add the chopped collards and cook, stirring constantly, until greens are wilted and slightly soft. Add the mustard, sugar, and horseradish and stir to cover the collards completely. Continue cooking until the mustard has “caramelized” on the collards – approximately 2-3 minutes. Add the beans and stir well to combine.* Cook until the beans have heated through. Serve hot with a nice piece of bread.

This recipe has the added protection of being low-fat, low-sodium, and great for lowering your cholesterol!

*If you choose to use dry beans that have soaked, you may need to add some additional moisture to the pot. A little veggie stock or simply water would probably suffice.

Film Frenzy

Imagine, if you will, dumping a bucket of chum into pool containing a large school of piranha.

Now, imagine that those piranha are people and the chum is independent and foreign films of every stripe. 

Welcome to the frenzy that is the 2011 Wisconsin Film Festival! Two hundred and nine films, shown in eight venues, over five days.

The Wisconsin Film Festival is unique in many ways. Because it is, technically, a campus-based film festival, it benefits from its association with the University of Wisconsin. Each year, the Fest's director, Meg Hamel, partners with various departments on campus to bring movies that support that department's subject matter. For example, the UW Department of  Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education was well represented with films about Down Syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, and other maladies. The campus also provides four of the eight screening venues.

Perhaps the best feature of this Fest is that all the venues are within walking distance along Madison's famed State Street - a pedestrian High Street with a huge variety of shops and restaurants - making the getting-to-and-from extremely enjoyable. After a couple of hours in a bleak Romanian "comedy" it's nice to get some fresh air and sun, if even for just 15 minutes between films.

Feed the FishFinally, because it's Wisconsin and it's only polite to do so, there's always a track of films called Wisconsin's Own. These films are made by "filmmakers living in or native to Wisconsin, or students/alumni of Wisconsin universities and colleges." This is how we snagged Feed The Fish starring Tony Shalhoub last year.  Mr. Shalhoub is from Wisconsin originally and this lovely little independent movie was filmed here.

2011 marked the thirteenth year of the Fest. It marked my twelfth as an attendee. The festival has grown a lot since those early years when it started as a Friday night through Sunday thing. Obviously, the total number of films and attendees has grown exponentially. I believe they estimate 35,000 people in attendance each year now. And the programming has evolved into a rich, albeit unpredictable, mix of documentaries and narratives.

For me, this used to be a solitary adventure. I would carefully choose my films and buy my tickets and then, only then, I would tell my friends what I was seeing. If they wanted to join me that was fine, but I didn't compromise my choices for someone else. As the years passed, I started coordinating with friends on certain films and buying films in a block with others to get the volume discount. Then, in 2007, my best friend from Atlanta decided she wanted to come up for the Fest - thus giving birth to the Atlanta/Madison Cultural Exchange. This totally changed the equation and now we choose our films together to maximize the visit. Sometimes I lament the old days of complete film fest freedom but it's outweighed by joy of having my friends here with me for five whole days.

In my heyday, I would see approximately 16 films over the course of four days. Now, with less stamina and out-of-town guests to entertain, my film to day ratio has dropped - to the betterment of all involved. This year I saw 15 movies in 5 days and, while we had plenty of time built in for meals, visits with other friends, and plain-old down-time, I'm still exhausted beyond belief. I must be getting old.

Below you'll find the list of films I saw, with links where possible. We didn't have any total stinkers this time around but I've starred the ones I think you should see if you can. And, if you're ever in Madison in the spring, you should plan it around Wisconsin Film Fest. Look for me in line.

- Alex

  • How To Start Your Own Country (documentary) - An intriguing look at "micro-nations", countries that are (sometimes arguably) countries but not recognized by any international body (such as the UN.) One is located in Nevada and has six residence - three of whom are dogs.
  • Slightly Unsettling Shorts (short film program) - Of the five short films in this program, the stand-out was The Legend of Beaver Dam.* Someone described it as Glee meets Marilyn Manson at a campground.
  • Beneath Hill 60 (narrative feature) - Based on actual events and people, this compelling WWI drama is about the Australian engineers who built tunnels under the European front lines. 
Beneath Hill 60 [Australia, 2010] DVD
  • Made In India * (documentary) - The ultimate outsourcing. A Texas couple hires a surrogate, in India, to carry their embryos. An interesting look at medical tourism and the issues surrounding it.
  • Marwencol * (documentary) - Stunning story of a man who, after suffering brain damage as the result of an attack, takes his therapy into his own hands and builds a world called Marwencol.
  • The Red Chapel * (documentary) - A raw look at today's North Korea and how they handle a visiting disabled person.
  • Circo (documentary) - A fourth-generation circus family in Mexico works hard and tries to survive.
  • Potiche * (narrative feature) - Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu shine in this period comedy (1970's) about women's liberation.
  • Troll Hunter * (narrative feature) - Trolls exist but the Norwegian government is covering it up. Great CGI monsters, a funny story, and gorgeous scenery.
  • The Colors of the Mountain (narrative feature) - In the tropical mountains of Columbia, the kids just want to play soccer and go to school but armed conflict is an always present threat.
The Colors of the Mountain
  • Medal of Honor (narrative feature) - A bleak Romanian "comedy" about a man who is surprised when he receives a medal for his service in WWII.
  • Mine Vaganti * (narrative feature) - An hilarious Italian film about love, family duty, and what it is to be gay in Italy today. 
Loose Cannons ( Mine vaganti ) [ NON-USA FORMAT, PAL, Reg.2 Import - Italy ]
  • Summer Pasture (documentary) - Follow a family of nomads in Tibet through a summer season. The nomadic culture is quickly dying out as more and more people settle in towns.
  • Anita (narrative feature) - Sad and sweet, a 20-something woman with Down Syndrome finds herself lost in the city and at the mercy of the people she meets on her journey.
  • Boy * (narrative feature) - Set in New Zealand in 1984, this quirky dramedy is filled with amazing kid actors and a story that will steal your heart.