Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sarah and the Purple

Do you remember the children's story, "Harold and the Purple Crayon"? It's the one where Harold (a small and slightly pudgy three year old) uses a purple crayon to draw on the walls. I'm sure his parents were none too pleased with this development but to Harold's credit, when he draws something it comes to life. For instance: he'd draw a boat and then use it to go for a sail. Nifty trick.

Sadly, I am lacking Harold's magical talents with crayons but we do have something in common. We both like purple. Sure I use purple paint where he uses purple crayon.

And it seems I have landed in a bit of hot water "parent"-wise as a result.

You see, it all started with my next door neighbor's stucco wall. It's an old wall - rust-stained and cracking and I look at it everyday while I do dishes. 

My white stucco patch does not exactly blend with the tan wall.

I had some extra stucco from my fireplace project so asked my neighbor Ken(an older father figure type) if he would mind me fixing his wall and giving it a coat of paint.

He said that would be fine.

So I patched the wall - and my kitchen sink window view turned from a cracked wall to a obviously patched wall view - better - but only by a fraction.

Then I was out garage-saling and happened across a 4 foot Aloe Vera for only $3! The 4 inch potted Aloes are $6.95 at the store so this was a deal and a half...except that the woman insisted I soak it overnight in water and plant it the next day.

I promised I would follow her instructions to the letter and we gingerly loaded the prickly plant into my mini.

Now you may have heard how Aloe Vera are used to heal - what you may not know is that they have to karmically since they cause so many wounds! 

Mine drew first blood when I slid into the drivers seat and attempted to buckle my seat belt. It reached out from the back seat and slashed my upper arm...I drove home hanging out the window doing the Havasu version of the "Detroit Lean".

Once home, old "Edward Scissor-fronds" was set into his bath.
Looks almost relaxed doesn't he?
I was all set to start digging his new home/hole right in front of the patched stucco wall (where Edward would never have the opportunity to slash again) when I realized that if I ever wanted to paint that wall (in anything but my own blood) that I would have to get right out there and do it fast.

I'd recently read a cool book on desert landscaping where the author, Scott Calhoun, proposed that desert succulents and cacti really look best when they are treated like living sculptural art. His suggestion was to paint the walls behind these plants in saturated colors so their silvery green leaves would "pop". His pictures were pretty inspiring.

I knew Dave wasn't going to be 100% on board with a brightly painted wall so I told him I was going to Walmart (which he thinks means grocery-shopping - and beer procurement - I don't even know if he realizes they sell paint).

After discarding the idea of fuchsia and fluorescent lime, I settled on a nice deep indigo violet. Paint is cheap at Walmart and $15 later I was ready to paint.

Except that painting stucco...especially old stucco isn't the same as painting drywall. Not only did the old dried out stucco suck up paint like Sunday morning senior citizens at the $1.50 Bloody Mary bar but the nooks and crannies and crevices made my thick nap roller useless.

The only thing that seemed to work was drenching the wall with paint from a brush and then physically pressing it into all the holes. This may not seem that big a deal but imagine only being able to paint a 6 inch square at a time and having to stop to rest every other paintbrush full.

It took me two hours to get this far:

There was a small amount of cussing.

And then I ran out of paint.

Those two small sections drank a gallon of the purple.

I was racing against time. The sun was setting; old Edward Aloe was finishing up his bath; and my neighbors were coming back from their trip to Vegas.

I made a lightening run for more paint and resolved to be up early in the morning to finish the job.

Finally I was done painting. Edward went into the ground with nary a scratch (on either of us). His silver spikes looked dramatic against the indigo wall.

He does look like art.
In fact, he looked so nice, I went to Lowe's and bought a rosette Agave to befriend Edward.
These can grow to be 4 feet in diameter.

Then Dave came out to see the wall...

"Looks like the back wall of a Mexican liquor store," he said.

Given the amount of Dos Equis, Corona and Jose Cuervo he drinks I decided to interpret that comparsion as a compliment.

And then my neighbor came home from Vegas.

It took a little while for Ken to notice anything was different...but when he did he asked me (with grave concern in his voice), "Are you color-blind?"

I assured him that I wasn't and I swear I saw an even deeper worry creep into his eyes.

Dave will get used to it I told myself and Ken can't even see a hint of purple from his yard. You can't even see the wall at all from the street I argued inside my head.

But I was starting to doubt myself.

Until morning came and the sun rose across Edward's spikes.

The shadows he casts are like a show in themselves.

Now that's a view I can do dishes to!

Friday, March 11, 2011

My Hollywood Screening

I have always loved Universal Studios - especially their Back-lot tour. Sure the mechanical shark used in Jaws isn't that scary (after the first time) but the earthquake sequence in the subway still gets me going.

Just seeing how the Hollywood set designers work their magic to transform the same building into the Old West, 2024, and then downtown New York amazes me.

The key to their craft lies creating the right "impression". For things to seem real, set designers simply add the elements that we expect to see and whether we recognize the deception or not, it works.

When you think about it, many restaurants use a similar approach in their interior design. On occasion I can almost feel the trade winds when I order my pina colada from a thatched bar. Other times I feel like I'm trapped in a 7 year old's birthday theme party - I'm pretty sure real pirates don't wear paper hats - I could be wrong but I'd wage bets on that.

Since I've just created a fake fireplace in my living room, I wanted to use the Hollywood approach to add to my "kiva" illusion without ending up with something so fake that it's painful to sit near.

On the whole, I think my kiva fireplace looks pretty real from a distance - the size, shape and texture is darn close to the real ones I've seen...except for the electric flame part. It's a long way from the flickering tissue paper flames on the 1970's but it's not 100%.

Now don't get me wrong, the folks at Dimplex have done a terrific job at making a realistic fire sequence - the flames are irregular heights and occur in a random pattern (Dave swears he has watched long enough to find the repeat but I've never seen it personally) but there is just one obvious hiccup...

No doubt you're familiar with the expression, "smoke and mirrors"...we'll that's EXACTLY the approach Dimplex uses. Behind the fake logs is a mirror complete with a foggy layer of arching "smoke". The flames play upon this mirror smoke to create a fairly realistic fire effect...unless you are sitting directly across from the fire (the most obvious place to sit mind you). In that case you can actually check your haircut or locate spinach in your teeth.

Handy, I admit - but not really "snuggle down in front of a roaring fire" activities.

And it completely destroys the illusion. I needed something that would distract the eye from that reflection. So I decided to camouflage the mirror effect with some finishing touches that would help make the leap from "theme party" to "real" ("real" after a few cocktails anyway).

I settled on two typical fireplace accessories - a screen and some firewood.

The firewood part was easy. A friend had a barrel full of branches/logs that were the same size as the fake ones and was happy to donate them to the cause. I chopped the logs to length to fit under the banco and arranged them artistically (okay so I stacked them - I meant to arrange them artistically but I got a splinter in the process and so just jammed them in there).

The smooth bark ones were no problem - but the mesquite? OUCH!

Then I priced out kiva fireplace screens. Turns out not only do they cost more than I'd spent on the whole darn project but they have to be custom ordered!

I mentioned my dilemma in passing to a friend who is taking flying lessons. I told him I'd decided to try and make my own using some screen mesh left over from the stucco phase of the project.

Turns out Jay has a background in metalwork and was more than happy to trade some fabrication time for some flying lessons (I am not a "pilot pimp" regardless of what some might say - Dave was a willing participant in the deal - particularly the part where HE didn't have to fabricate anything himself).

Now I know nothing about metalwork, or welding so poor Jay was stuck starting at the very beginning with me. We started by bending some round stock into the arch shape of the kiva opening (luckily I'd saved the piece of plywood I'd cut out to make the opening).

Then we welded. Really Jay welded - I put on heavy gloves and super dark welding glasses and tried not to squeal like a girly-girl every time the acetylene popped (in my defense it was very loud and the liquid metal splashes - it IS scary).

I am a human clamp here while Jay tack-welds the corner.
Did I mention that the torch often lights the plywood on fire...oh yeah, and the table TOO!
Then we had to grind the welds to smooth them out - by "we" I mean Jay.
The arch turned out perfectly - mostly because Jay corrected my uneven bending.
How cool is that???
Notice the holes in Jay's shirt? Yup, sparks and hot metal caused those - welding is not an "anyone can do it" sort of hobby.
A quick coat of flat black and it looks perfect!
Sorry about the dark pic - trying to show the flames...
The screen does the trick - the flames are easily viewed but it's challenging to make out any reflection in the mirror now - mission accomplished!
Hollywood - Arizona style!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Fire in the Hole!

Since the dawn of time man has coveted fire...

And woman has coveted fire...places as focal points for living rooms and great places to display cool things from the forest!

In my case, I coveted the kiva style fireplace. We live in the desert in a "sorta" Santa Fe style house (which is to say we have tile floors and stucco walls) so wouldn't you think the builder would have included one???

Nope - nada. The only fire area in this house was inside the malfunctioning dishwasher (we replaced it).

The lack of fireplace seemed an obvious oversight to me so as we were signing the papers to buy the foreclosure 2 years ago, I secretly resolved to just "add one" after we moved in. No need to bother Dave with the details...he's happier in his renovation darkness.

The living room "BEFORE" pic - it's very plain with no real focal point.
Once we settled in, the lack of fireplace really started to get to me so I started looking into my options.

Natural gas was out since our neighborhood doesn't have any. Propane was out because the one spot suitable for a fireplace is no where near an outside wall and a tank on the roof seems a bit scary.

Making a real wood burning fireplace was a bad idea for three reasons:
1. it would mean chopping a hole through the tile roof (above my pay grade and certainly above my skill level although Barb says the one I cut through her shingle roof never leaked - mind you she's since built a second story over it);
2. getting a permit (always a hassle and I don't even know where the building department is located); and
3. pouring a foundation is super-messy and involves jack-hammers which are too heavy for me to use.

Finally I narrowed it down to two feasible and affordable solutions: alcohol or electric. In our family (we're Irish) it's only acceptable to burn alcohol over desserts so that left electric.

But I didn't want it to look electric. No paper flames crinkling as the tiny fan hummed - I wanted to be able to fool myself (okay - fool myself after a cocktail). to the rescue. I was able to find a realistic looking electric fireplace insert at 10% off!

Now I just needed a place to put it.

I started by creating a scale drawing of the living room and then discovered that while straight lines are easy enough to make, curves aren't. Some folks skilled in drafting use special templates to draw nice even curves - budget-minded me created the "condiment top" template - ketchup, mustard, and taco sauce all have different sized lids (bet you feel like you're learning something cool already, huh?)

I was still having trouble visualizing the space (could have been the mustard and ketchup stains on the paper) so a mock up was needed.

Since the kids were home for a visit, I them to evaluate my plan by rearranging the living room and creating a cardboard version of my new kiva.

This is the view seconds before the whole assembly collapsed.
Their input and the life-sized model really helped me convince Dave that a fireplace was needed. But how the heck was I going to build the thing?

I knew I could build a real fireplace with bricks but that would be expensive and I'd need a foundation to hold the weight. But I really wanted it to look like adobe so I settled on a wood base with a stucco topping.

I could easily imagine the shelf I wanted for the TV and the "banco" (bench) that would flank the fireplace. What I couldn't imagine was the curve of the kiva itself and how it was going to intersect with the shelf unit.

So back to the foam core board I went and created a scale model of the living room checking the look of tall shelves versus low shelves and really focusing on how the heck I was going to build the fireplace itself.
Here's a birds-eye view of the "high shelf" option.

And a birds-eye view of the "low shelf" option.

I always like to peek through the windows to see how everything will look.

We settled on the low shelf option to keep the focus on the kiva itself and I set to work building the skeleton.

I started with the shelf and banco - nice easy straight cuts - the blue tape marks the studs.

Turned out this is where the "easy" part ends...

Creating the curve for the fireplace was a challenge - too many planes to think about.

Erica came up with the idea to use Type X drywall as it is fire rated for 1 hour just in case...
It's like building a wedding cake out of odd scraps of wood and hardboard.
Dave had to add on the last layer - oh if only I were taller!

Once the frame was built, I had to cover EVERY surface with steel mesh to anchor the stucco.
Cutting steel mesh is easy with tin snips...for the first 30 cuts...the last 300 cuts make blisters...
I had to use duct tape to get the band aids to stick inside my work gloves.

I had stuccoed over our brick fireplace in the last house so I knew how the end finish would look - what I forgot (until I was halfway through the first coat) was how I swore I would never do it this way again...sigh.

Adding the first coat of stucco is like spreading old peanut butter over a cheese grater.

Not OSHA approved - don't try this at home.

Once the stucco was dry, I had to scrape every surface to loosen all the little pebbles (which screw up the drywall mud because they make long streaks which creates the effect of sliding cats).

Once I swept and vacuumed and then wiped everything down, I top-coated the whole thing with regular drywall mud.

And then I waited.

And waited.

And waited for the dang stuff to dry. We live in the DESERT shouldn't everything dry faster???

Two days later I top coated and began to wait again.

I was getting a little crabby I admit it.

Wet sanding is only slightly less annoying but my hands were ruined so even that hurt.
And then everything had to be sanded (rubbed) with a wet sponge to smooth out the majority of the peaks. Yup - and that's another reason why I was never going to make "adobe" this way again...sigh.

Finally it was dry.

Looks just like the foam core too much like foam core - I need accessories!

So I primed, painted and fell into a heap on the couch.

I added a couple of Mexican blankets to soften the bancos and add some southwest flair.

My favorite kiva "look" is when they have ironwork crosses. I lucked out and found a nice one at Kirkland Home on sale. I bent it to fit the curve of our kiva and promptly popped off one of the turquoise tips. Now I know why it was on sale. Some super-glue and a quick coating of hot glue to prevent the metal from rubbing on the new paint and I had the look I was trying for!

Finally our living room has a "Southwest" focal point (just ignore Dave's huge TV).