September 2010

homemade cheese bread loaf for garlic bread toast

Delicious Homemade Cheese Bread that tastes great with garlic sprinkle and butter!

I must be having a breakdown of some kind. And I think everyone else in my family has realized it before I finally did. I’ve been acting completely out of character to the point of being unrecognizable to those who know me best.

Usually when I’m under stress, I escape into a creative zone and avoid anything work related. That includes a boycott on domestic chores in favor of a good novel, a melodramatic mini-series on BBC, or an afternoon spent painting and “crafting”.

It’s no secret that I’ve never been domestically inclined to begin with; both my previous husbands would looove to attest to it. Neither was I content to live in complete and utter squalor, so I would find the strength to occasionally vacuum the carpet or throw a few loads of laundry into the machine.

I loved to bake, and hated to cook.
I didn’t mind folding clothes, but loathed putting them away.
Don’t get me started on ironing… what’s the point?
And dishes would be stubbornly left to sit for days in the sink.

Having worked in a variety of retail/food service/housekeeping jobs where mopping floors, washing and sanitizing dishes, and scrubbing surfaces were a huge portion of my daily requirements… it made coming home to more dishes and grungy floors a depressing inevitability.

Last year, significant and profound things began happening to me.
Well, obviously, I gave birth to Jacob in April (2009)… but my role shifted from being a full-time, workaholic retail grocery manager who also happened to be a mom, to being a “homemaker” and nurturing caregiver.

A few short years ago, I would’ve scoffed at the notion of being a stay-at-home mother. Not that I devalue what it represents, as some of my earliest role
models were primarily homemakers with creative side outlets (like my grandmother, the published poet).
But as I admitted initially, I wasn’t cut from the same cloth… or so I thought.
I avoided those dreaded high school Home Economics courses like the Black Plague. I got itchy hives even thinking about quilting and crocheting.

Although, when I could no longer identify myself by a professional job title, it dawned on me that I needed to take ownership of my own home.
That is why I’ve jumped into this domesticity deal with both feet, plunged in up to my thighs.

I feel a new sense of pride and accomplishment from seeing an empty laundry hamper, a recently mopped kitchen floor, and squeaky clean children munching on their tuna fish sandwiches.. just as much as I felt after setting Thanksgiving salesfloor displays, printing 480 price signs, and straightening out inventory discrepancies.

homemade pancakes with maple syrup and butter

Our usual breakfast, made from scratch with love and lots of syrup

The idea to sell my paintings and become an entrepreneur came about as a result of identity crisis, needing to find a creative expression with which to
motivate me beyond the dirty diapers and piles of dishes… I had always wanted to run my own retail business, and had done some research awhile ago when I
couldn’t decide between opening a bakery, an arts/crafts supply store, a bookstore, a cat-themed gift shop, or some bizarre combination of food, art, books, and cats.

Ironically, now that my artwork is beginning to find its market and sales have increased, what was once an outlet to escape from work has now become the work. I have difficulty staying focused as pressure demands that I prepare for the holidays, create new lines… (everyone has their calendars designed and printed except me), advertise, apply for winter shows, and so forth.

I find myself embracing the domestic lifestyle even more, and mundane housechores have become my new retreat.
The stress manifests itself as a sparking house. I convince myself that laundry, dishes, and vacuuming are vital, when in fact, it’s just another form of

Last week, I had an unconscious breakdown while starting my Jane Bennet portrait… suddenly, I developed an urge to create a line of stuffed animals based upon my Regency Cats. Instead of putting this cute but unfeasible notion on the back-burner, I dropped everything to scour the internet for doll patterns.

One thing to remember: I don’t sew. And I can’t follow a pattern to save my life. I think in finished terms.. I envision a piece fully completed, and then dissect it
to figure out how it was constructed. If I were an architect, I would draw a house. Not a blueprint.
Blueprints and dress patterns are written in Greek… no wait, I can actually read bits of Greek, so they might as well be written in Mandarin Chinese.

sketches for a stuffed cat doll in regency dress

See, aren't my patterns easy to understand? 😉

I sketched this design for a doll, and this drawing make perfect sense to me. No fancy terms required. I dug into my bag of never-to-be-worn-again-but-too-sentimental-to-discard clothing, and pulled out a sweater and a tank top. The sweater was cut into cat pieces, and the tank top will become her dress when I’m done.

Right now, she’s lacking ears, a face, hair, and missing her skirt… oh, she needs more cotton to stuff her tummy and head.

handsewn stuffed cat in process

My semi-stuffed cat (and chocolate pillow by TwoStrayCats)

I’m doing this completely by hand, and it’s taking forever (well, over a week so far)… because I still have a deathly fear of sewing machines and needles
that move faster than my blinking eye.

My family is in utter shock that I am sewing at all. I vowed never to sew… but Lydia is excited about the possibility of wearing custom dresses.
We actually went shopping for patterns. I grabbed a couple that were marked “For Beginners”, and realized after perusing them at home, that I must be in a category ranking beneath a beginner. What is that anyway? Are there Sewing for Dummy patterns?

Apparently, beginners should already understand phrases like: “stay-stitch bodice front and back neck edges..” (the very first step!), know how to “clip curves” and “baste armholes”.

Does that mean to keep your armholes moist in their own juices…
ya know, like basting chicken? Ewwwww.
What’s up with the long, confusing paragraph describing how to apply the zipper?!  How hard could it possibly be… but… what in heaven’s name  is zipper tape?
How about I just tape the whole crappy thing together… I’d use fusible web for that, right?

My cat doll doesn’t have a pattern or instructions; I just cut the cloth freestyle, and can’t tell you whether I’m basting or stay-stitching anything.
But they are meticulously tiny, thanks to a few attempts at cross-stitch (hey, I do know the meaning of that!), I’ve learned to make even rows of little 1/8″ stitches.

I’m not sure how well this project will turn out.. I’m using nylon upholstery thread and will let the children test-drive the finished doll for durability…
but hopefully the sheer primitiveness of hand-sewing a toy will cure me of this procrastination, and I can return to doing what I know well.

And then my family will be forced to eat TV dinners again, and wear the same pair of pants for three days in a row. 😉

photo manipulated piece "Gazing upon Pemberley"

Gazing Upon Pemberley - prints available on Etsy.

I would love to think that someday my name will be synonymous with Regency Cats, as my heart truly lies with my anthropomorphic cat drawings. However, when studying the press and attention I’ve received in the last year (barring Regretsy of course), I have to concede that my most popular piece to date has been “Gazing On Pemberley”, a photomanipulation featuring myself.        

Austenites around the globe chuckle over “Mr. Darcy Cat”, but drool over “Pemberley”. She’s been featured in multiple blogs and Etsy treasuries recently, which is a great deal of exposure for me, and my relatively unknown body of work.
I find myself, time and time again, trying to describe what “photomanipulation” is… what differentiates this piece from an actual photograph. As obviously I wasn’t standing there, in that field, overlooking Pemberley. 😉        

I decided the best way to explain how a photomanip is created, is by showing a few screenshots of a work-in-progress, to explain the process in steps as I did earlier with “Mr. Bennet Cat”.        

So for all you Pemberley fans, bear with me as I attempt to re-create “Gazing On Pemberley” from the beginning. 🙂        

It starts with an idea, of course. I wanted to use one of my own stock photos from my Regency photo shoot, taken at the local City Park, in the summer of 2008.        

See, for a brief time before I devoted all my spare hours to painting and experimenting in Photoshop, I modeled as a hobby. It began in 2006, when a friend of mine suggested that I visit his Deviantart gallery… I had no clue what Deviantart was, or how photomanips were created, but I was instantly hooked.
Not believing I had any talent to manipulate photos myself (I hadn’t actually tried).. I decided to dig out my old theatre costumes, and scoured eBay to invest in some new pieces, to go traipsing about the countryside as a stock model with my boyfriend/husband in tow as my photographer.        

Stock photography can be used As Is, for reference, and for digital collage (a.k.a photomanipulation). I guess at that time in my life, I needed reassurance that I was desirable and attractive… and my weakening self-esteem (from the collapse of a bad marriage) needed a major vanity boost, which I received tenfold as artists across the world began using my likeness in their work.
(If you’re interested to learn more about my amateur modeling days, click here to see the gallery of artwork featuring me).        

I was inspired to create “Gazing on Pemberley” when I found this image among my photos. I think this was overlooked by others as potential material because of the harsh shadows.
We photomanipulators sometimes get lazy and want everything to be clear, in-focus, and evenly lit. 😉    

Regency Jane Austen woman lake park

Portrait of TaraFly taken at the City Park, circa 2008

The key to a good photomanip is even lighting among the photos… getting the light source, the shadows, and the intensity to match. The individual images need to work together as a whole, and it’s always best if they are taken with the same camera, or during the similar hours of the day.
Warm afternoon sun, long shadows, etc…        

While browsing Deviantart for English countryside themes, I stumbled across VisualJenna-stock’s gallery… and this piece in particular.
The rolling hills, late afternoon sunlight, and summertime feeling were exactly what I had in mind for this piece.        

Rolling English countryside by VisualJenna-stock

Beautiful rolling hills by VisualJenna-Stock (click to view)

The only downside, albeit a minor one, was the nondescript sky. I was hoping to find a photo with a few fluffy clouds… but for a photo collage artist, a lack of interesting sky poses no problem! Simply grab another sky. 😉        

When digging up stock photography for a new piece, I have a few Go-To artists: Night-Fate-Stock (a.k.a Julia Starr) is one of them. Her gallery stands alone as beautiful photography in its own right. Her photos rarely, if ever, need improvement. And she graciously shares a portion of her collection with us.
I keep coming back to her skies as they are the best I’ve ever seen… I used a sunset of hers in my Regency manipulation “The Letter”, and I chose this one for “Pemberley”.        

Field and cloudy sky by Night-Fate-stock on

An awesome sky full of clouds (click to view larger)

Now, if you’ll notice… the foreground of Jenna’s stock is lit by the sun… and my model was standing in the shade. So I needed to find another photograph with a shady patch of grass in the foreground. I chose one of my own, from the same City Park shoot:        

Grassy hillside in summer at the park

A grassy hillside photo taken during the Regency shoot.

Lastly, but certainly not “leastly”, we need a grand estate to pose as Pemberley. I searched for English manors, and uncovered this gem by MacKenzie’sPride.
Notice the full sun is shining against the manor from the same direction as in Jenna’s hillside… that was serendipitous!        

My Pemberley a.k.a. Smithills Hall by MacKenziesPride on Deviantart

Smithills Hall by MacKenziesPride (click to view)

So, where do we begin?
I open a new file, with a basic white background, and roughly the width of my widest photo…
Starting from the horizon, I’ll work forward, so the sky gets placed first.
Cut-and-paste the sky onto the white background layer.        

Sky by Night-Fate-Stock on white background

Night-Fate-Stock's sky placed onto the bottom layer.

Then using the “Magic Extractor” tool, I remove the boring sky from VisualJenna’s hillside.
Squiggle the plus (+) brush onto the areas I’d like to keep, and the negative (-) brush onto the area I’d like erased.
This tool has its limitations, and some areas will need to be manually corrected before hitting “Okay”.    

Using Magic Extractor Tool in Photoshop

Using Magic Extractor to remove the sky from the field.

I’ll wind up with a Photoshop layer like this:    

Field from VisualJenna-Stock with sky removed

VisualJenna-Stock's field with the sky removed

Next, I paste the hillside layer over the sky and position it just so.
Later on, in the touch-up process, I will blur the harsh line between the trees and the horizon…
but don’t those two photographs already look made for each other?! 😀        

Night-Fate-Stock (sky) and VisualJenna-Stock (field)

Combining the field and sky images...

I used Magic Extractor again, to separate the hill in my park photo from the sky (and power lines).
I also had to rotate the image horizontally, so the shadows and light source would match Jenna’s hillside.
Cut-and-paste on top of her layer.        

Now this was an obvious example of the limitations of the Magic Extractor tool.
When images are clearly defined shapes, like houses and people, it does an excellent job removing them from a background… with only a few minor touch-ups with the eraser needed. (Unless the background is cluttered, of course, which will confuse the program).
But when we are dealing with grass, this tool stinks.
Grass, leaves, hair, lace… these complex images need to be painstakingly edited after the initial extraction. Zooming in reeeeally close, and using a tiny eraser to remove bits of the unwanted background.     

Splicing two photographs together in Photoshop

Adding another hill to the foreground...

So now you can see the seam between the photos, where part of the original sky is exposed.
I will need to work with my eraser tool to remove the sky, and then I’ll paint some grass blades and Smudge some grass as well (like we did with Mr. Bennet’s fur) to stitch these two photos together.        

Seam between two separate photographs

You can see the sky from my original photo, peeking out!

I use Magic Extractor once again, to eliminate the background from MacKenzie’s manor photograph, which just leaves us with the manor here.
I paste it into my work-in-progress, and must adjust the size, and also erase the portion that will be hidden behind the hillside.
To do that, I’ll temporarily reduce the Opacity of the manor’s layer to 50% or less, so that the curves of the hillside will show through, allowing me to trace along the edge of the hill with my eraser.        

Smithills Hall being used as Pemberley in TaraFly's artwork

Smithills Hall pasted into the scene... it needs to be resized.

Smithills Hall used for Jane Austen's Pemberley owned by Mr Darcy

The manor has been adjusted and tucked away behind a hill.

To add Elizabeth Bennet to the scene, I extract “myself” from the park background and paste the layer above the hill… erasing bits of my dress at the bottom to reveal the tall grass underneath.        

TaraFly in Regency dress models as Elizabeth Bennet

Including myself in this artwork; a close-up of my dress hem.

Now it has finally dawned on me that I needed a source for those shadows on my back…
so I look through my computer folder of saved stock files, and find another charming photograph by Night-Fate-Stock.        

Trees by Night-Fate-Stock on

A grove of trees by Night-Fate-Stock

If you thought the Magic Extracting tool had difficulty with grass… it fails miserably with trees.
I almost hesitate to use trees in my work at all, because branches and leaves are very time-consuming to cut out. 😛
Here was the initial extraction:        

Pasting trees into a photomanipulation

Cutting and pasting the trees...

So now would be a good time to pop in your copy of A&E’s “Pride and Prejudice”, the 6-hour miniseries, and watch the entire thing.
Pop some corn, brew some tea, pick up your knitting project…
It’s over already? Rewind and watch it again….
I’ll still be here, zooming in 500%, erasing the pieces of bright blue sky from the branches of these blasted trees.        

But finally, when I’m done with them…
and I’ve gone back to blend, smudge, blur, and tweak the edges of each photo until my eyes are sore.
I will merge the many layers of this almost-finished piece into one layer and save it as a jpg file.        

Gazing on Pemberley by TaraFlyPhotos digital photomanipulation

Gazing on Pemberley is almost complete!

The only thing left to do is experiment with the color balance and filters to make the image warmer and more saturated.        

The finished art is ready to upload and share – “Gazing On Pemberley”, a Regency-inspired photomanipulation starring myself as Elizabeth Bennet. 🙂        

Photomanipulation is a lot like sewing, I suppose, without getting your fingers stabbed and dripping blood everywhere.
The quality of the stock photography really makes the difference, and my job is to envision the finished quilt and stitch everything into place.
I owe the success of this piece to the wonderful stock artists out there in Deviantart-ville.    

Gazing on Pemberley Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice TaraFly Art

"Gazing On Pemberley" ... Behind the Scenes

Woman shopping empty grocery store bare shelves

"Everything I want is always on the top shelf!"

So the cupboards and fridge were looking pretty empty over the weekend, and I decided to host a Labor Day Sale in my Etsy shop AND auction one of my paintings on eBay.
Usually, I don’t celebrate holidays with special sales, but I referred to this as my “Peanut Butter and Jelly Sale”.
I had a couple of customers *waves at Lily and Carolyn* but although it wasn’t as successful as I’d anticipated, don’t worry! We won’t starve. 🙂

Everywhere you turn, these days, you can’t help but listen to the horrible tales of people hit hard by this recession. People have been laid off from their jobs, lost their homes and cars, and suffered from medical emergencies… clutching our wallets tightly to our chests, we feel for them but secretly pray that we won’t “be next”.

Businesses, too, are tightening their purses and in unfortunate cases … are beginning to charge outrageous fees to their established customer base to keep themselves afloat.

A few years ago, when I opened my “free” bank account, they asked whether I wanted one with a zero minimum balance.
“Of course!” I replied.
Every penny I earn has a name and number, like “Car insurance #7,142” … the seven-thousandth penny towards my insurance payment.

I wouldn’t consider us “poor folk”, but every cent counts. We don’t have hundreds of dollars just lying around to carpet our bank accounts. So imagine my surprise when I began taking a closer look at my monthly statements and found “service fees” springing up like weeds.
These aren’t like occasional overdraft fees, which are also expensive (but I regard them as punishment for spending more than I have)… the “service fees” are usually deducted from bank accounts after the customer dips below their Minimum Balance limit (i.e. $100).
I politely inquired about it, and was told that my account had been “upgraded” when our smallish bank merged with a larger branch, and that notifications had been sent in the mail.

Hmmm… yeah, those sorts of notifications tend to vanish (along with my Zazzle royalty check from May) when we move from one address to another. The Post Office had instructions to forward all our mail, but only the junk seemed to arrive on time.

The bank employees insisted that these charges were legal, necessary, and justified… I wouldn’t be able to recover those fees because it was my fault for allowing my balance to dwindle into the double digits.
Since when should we feel like criminals for spending our own money? What is wrong with having $26.00 in the bank?

If I could get away with not having a bank account, I would stuff my money into a cookie tin like our grandparents did. Unfortunately, we need the bank… and worst of all, the bank knows it. They have us by the toenails, because at the very least, I need to get various checks cashed.

Our biggest box of fee surprise came after moving to the outskirts of town, where the City of Hagerstown no longer supplies our electricity needs. There was only one electrical service provider available for this neighborhood, and their fees are almost surreal.
When we were customers of the City, our electric bill averaged anywhere from $80-$180 per month… the higher bills naturally occurred during those 15-degree winter months and the 105-degree summers. We were happy with our service.

Since moving here, our new provider has doubled our bill… wait, no, tripled our bill.
Our usage hasn’t changed; we purchased an energy-efficient washer/dryer set, use the squiggly CFL bulbs in every room, have a closet full of blankets for wintertime (instead of cranking the heat) and ceiling fans running in the summer to reduce the need for A/C. (We do vacuum our carpets 3-4 times per day…but…)
I am not exaggerating when I tell you – over 50% of the recent amount due consisted of service fees and surcharges. (Not late-payment fees, mind you, as we paid on time last month).

A sample of these fees/charges include:

  • the Transmission Charge – associated with the movement of high-voltage electricity from a generation facility to the distribution lines of an electric distribution company.
  • the Customer Distribution Charge – for delivering electricity from a customer’s chosen supplier to their residence or business.
  • an Electrical Universal Service fee
  • KHW Distribution Charge (which is separate from our actual KHW usage charge)
  • an Energy Cost Adjustment
  • a Cogeneration PURPA surcharge – the costs associated with the purchasing of power from the AES/Warrior Run power station.
  • a Franchise Tax
  • an EmPower Maryland surcharge (to fund energy conservation programs… they give small rebates to folks purchasing fancy appliances)
  • and a Maryland Environmental surcharge – the Costs associated with the funding of the state Power Plant Research Program.

The combined cost of these extra little charges were well over $100. Although we will manage somehow, I cannot understand how poorer families are able to afford this nonsense. 😛

I went to sleep with fees on my mind, and woke up feeling my usual sense of irony. This used to be nation obsessed with lawsuits: people sued because the coffee was too hot, the haunted house was too scary, the reality TV show was too disgusting, and because husbands and wives were withholding emotional support from each other.

Now, it seems we are the Fee Nation. Some companies earn their entire profit from charging fees.

So what do the little people do? Well, we can start charging fees too! LOL

Did you have to stand in a check-out line? ….Charge a fee for your time.
Did a late meeting force you to miss the bus/train? …..Charge your boss a fee!
Was the newspaper missing from your porch this morning?
Did the grocery store forget to order your brand of milk?
Did your mother keep you on the phone for two hours?
Did the cashier ask to see your ID?
Was the traffic light too red?

Nothing is more valuable than our time, energy, and emotional well-being, right?
Everyone should pay us for the inconveniences we endure! 😉

So when my husband writes that check to Allegheny Power this month, I’m going to slip an invoice into our return envelope… with a list of fees that our electric company owes us.
C’mon folks, let’s get creative!