Tours, Tiles and Tattoos

For our last two days in Portugal we stayed in the Lisbon Central Park Hotel. On the first day we visited the Bernardo Collection where there was tons of modern and contemporary art. The guided tour lead us through most of the second floor, but the museum was so huge there was no way we’d finish it all. The tile museum was our next stop, and here we painted our own tile before walking through and looking at MANY different designs and colors of tiles. Of course, we went off for some serious shopping after this and then dinner and a semi early night compared to the rest of the trip. We were all so exhausted from the week. The next day we headed out at around 9:30 to another collection of a super rich Armenian guy, whose name escapes me now, but he collected tiles, Chinese vases, Japanese wallets and a ridiculous amount of other pieces. After walking through with our tour guide we came out to the vast gardens that surrounded the building and there were some very strange birds living with the little ducks that had taken over. Another museum was on the same grounds, but a separate entity and had many more pieces including sculptures and some beautiful work from a few Portuguese artists. One last stop was on our agenda at a section of the museum of design which was all over the city because of the construction in their main building. This exhibit was composed of tattoos… directly on human skin. Literal cut outs of skin from the chests, backs and arms of deceased inmates from 1912. The staff there were very insistent on NOT taking pictures. It was pretty gross. Once we left, we ended up wandering through a festival in the city for a while before we headed home to rest for our early taxi ride to the airport the next morning. The airport was crazy as usual, and it didn’t help that our flight was pushed forward so we were supposed to leave even earlier. A brief sprint through the terminal and some intense maneuvers through passport lines and security got us to our gate on time. From there life was easy, and we came back to Logan after a stop in Philadelphia. I’m happy to be home, but I will miss Portugal dearly. This experience was life changing and I will definitely be back to Portugal someday soon!

Experiments, Embryos, and Escapees

escaOur last day in Sao Luis was a calm and relaxed day. We checked on all of our experiments; the urchins, bacteria and fruit flies. The urchins’ cells had multiplied and formed a blackberry type shape which was the start of an embryo! Our petri dishes with the agar and bacteria had grown significantly, some looking like tiny white forests, others like frost on a window. Our fruit flies left a few colorful poops, but it seemed most had escaped from our containers. I quickly went to check on my terrarium as well, just in case something fell over, and I realized that one of the seed pods I used had opened up and it looked even better than when I put it in and it was closed. After breakfast we headed to the beach to release the sea urchins and their new babies and then stopped for a coffee before heading home. We cleaned up and relaxed before dinner and then said our goodbyes as we were off to Lisbon for our last two days.

Sea, Sex, and Super Gross Dissections

We got up even earlier on Thursday, and headed straight to the beach after breakfast. Our mission was to gather sea urchins from the tide pools. Using our little knives we scraped them out and put them in a bottle of sea water and brought them home. The goal of this assignment was to observe the fertilization and cell multiplication of the sea urchins. After our attempts to make them ejaculate naturally (by gently rocking them back and forth like the sea) failed, they were injected with a harmless solution that made their muscles contract to force them to. Under the microscope, we looked for the eggs and sperm but it was kind of hard to stabilize the image. We left them to do their thing while we dissected a pig heart, which was super gross. It was strange thinking that we only had one day left in Sao Luis, it felt as if we had just gotten there.

Fears, Flies and Fungus

Wednesday was going to be a super hot day, so we all got up very early to go to the horse farm down the street. Oh my God, I rode a horse. It was great to face one of my biggest fears, but now I can also say the first (and probably last) time I ever rode a horse was in Portugal! After being excited and terrified at the same time for the entire half hour lesson, we headed back to Marta’s and began our work for the day. Marta had a collection of fruit flies and we were going to use them to “paint” with. When fruit flies’ food is dyed with food dye, they will poop the color of the food dye they ate from. So Marta put the flies in the freezer to make them sleep while we setup our containers with paper and little food bowls of red, blue and yellow coloring for them to eat. We put the flies in and then started on our next assignment while they ate and pooped. Marta took out a bag of mushrooms and we peeled the tops, cut off the stems, and placed them on white paper and cloth. The mushrooms, when made wet by the spritzer we had, were going to release their spores and make the pattern of their bottoms on the cloth and paper. After covering them with bowls we started on one last thing for the day, terrariums. I was so excited for this because I love tiny things. We gathered plants and rocks and put our mini worlds together in jars and documented them with pictures.

Sex with Sea Urchins

We awoke at the un characteristically early hour of 7:30 when only the Portuguese roosters are awake. The destination is Furna’s Beach in VN Milfeuntes (Praia das Furnas) to gather purple sea urchins (Paracentrotus lividus). They gather socially in tide pools, stuck to the rocks with tiny, soft extendable sucker anchors. They are like tribbles, where there’s one there’s a dozen.

We had to climb to the highest tide pools – up 3 meters above low tide in some cases to raid the pools for urchins. When do these pools ever flood? Liz and Katie and Luis Graça eased them from their rocks with the dull side of a knife and I carried the sea water jug to store them. They are prickly, but also soft and they flex gently in your hand when you hold them. How hungry would you have to be to think eating this is a good idea?

There’s one beautiful, protruding “mouth”, a cloaca really, that has 3-4 teeth. These are real choppers and look like small rabbit teeth. Marta says Adam Zaretsky licked one and it bit him. Nothing on the outside tells you the gender. Like many marine animals, they release eggs and sperm into the water where they must meet to form gametes. We are going to watch it all on TV. To get them started they needed stimulation! What do they find sexy? We decides to try gentle wave motions. Each one was put in a Petri dish to catch any output and we stood around singing Barry White and shaking our dishes.

This did nothing, so Luis injected them with a mild stimulant (can’t remember the chemical) and they got very wiggly and released liquids into the dishes. Orange for girls and white for boys. It turns out we raided the all girls tidal pool, because we got only one male. Marta put the liquids under the microscope and we looked for action on the big screen.

When they first get fertilized they look like this, above, with a giant halo pushing away all other sperm and organisms. Remember this is a sphere. 

The next morning the zygote looked like this: a perfect mandala or raspberry form, called a morula. The cluster of things that look like bees are the dead sperm that were too late to the party. Each division took about 2 hours: much slower than I expected.

By the time we released the babies and adults the next day, we had donut shaped blastocysts. Wow. We even have video of a paramecium “cleaning” – eating up the dead stuff- around the outside surface of the blastocysts.

São Luís

Hey, it’s me again. It’s been a whirlwind these past few days- the second we got off the bus in Milfontes (fresh off of a 3 hour trip through the wonderfully scenic country that is Portugal), our host Marta de Menezes picked us up, accompanied by three other artists who were staying at Cultivamos Cultra as well; Manuel Fertado, a Portugese intellectual who can talk for hours about art and philosophy and just life in general (and refuses to go to bed until every pot in the kitchen is scrubbed cleaner than when it was first manufactured), Maja Smrekar, a Slovenian artist with an infectious laugh and two adorable dogs who I have come to adore (Byron, a border collie who has mastered the art of forcing fetch upon all of humankind and Ada, an Icelandic angel of a puffball who looks like an arctic fox and who’s likeness I must secure for my own some day- Lord Byron and Lady Lovelace), and Alan Tod, a mustachioed, red and white striped shirt wearing, rolls-his-own-ciagrettes French artist “working for Love” with an impressive green thumb and understanding of the world (seriously, look up “French Artist” and I guarantee Alan will pop up grinning ear to ear). After a brief introduction, we all agreed that it was time for lunch. I, of course, hopped into the car that had the dogs in the back and we zipped off to the restaurant (almost all the cars in Portugal are tiny and efficient, probably because the roads are so small). Of course, the first restaurant that we dine in is located right on the coast of Southern Portugal, and the view from our table consisted of high, treacherous looking cliffs that fell down to kiss the frothy, tumultuous waves that stretched out into sparkling oblivion as far as the eye could see. Unreal. Once again, I opted for an an authentic Portuguese meal; roasted squid with sweet potatoes (the sweet potatoes in Portugal are much different; they’re yellow instead of orange and far sweeter- they tasted almost like maple). After we finished eating we ordered every single dessert on the menu (when you do this in Portugal it is called “the pajama”, which I had to explain meant “pjs” or “sleep clothes” to me). After inhaling the fantastic false pjs and slurping down some much needed espresso, Maja, Ellen, Katie and I decided to simultaneously stretch our legs and take the dogs for a walk whilst also exploring the coastline (I found it pretty amusing that I would still be wading into the waters of the Atlantic- would it still be considered coast to coast if its the same coast? These are the thoughts that keep me up at night- that, and the jet lag that I still can’t seem to shake). After a lengthy exploration, we somehow managed to climb back up the cliff face without falling, packed into Maja’s tiny blue car and sped off to the Portuguese version of a supermarket. Under Marta’s instruction, we collected a few things for dinner and *finally* we left Milfontes and headed towards the village where we would be spending the majority of our time; São Luís (of course the road there was through some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen; rolling hills, fantastic smelling flora, rivers, farm animals- all against a seemingly always clear, perfectly blue sky. The air was so delicious I toyed with the idea of sticking the entire upper half of my body out the window and opening my mouth just to inhale more of it, but the road was so twisty I fear I would have been flung from the car and my trip would have been cut much too short. So I stayed seated, unwillingly). São Luis is a small village with a lot of character and beautifully colored houses, and you could probably walk from one side of the village to the other in only 30 minutes time. We pulled into Marta’s farmhouse and it was gorgeous- so old and rustic, like something out of a fairytale or a vintage foreign film. We got the grand tour, of course, before finally settling all of our things into our room (Katie and I would be sharing one- the beds were so tiny and low to the ground but I loved it. We even had our own view of the street.) For dinner, Marta prepared an incredible fresh vegetable soup, which was accompanied by bread both baked and picked up from the town market that morning (so soft and sweet it didn’t need any butter at all for taste) and sautéd sausage and chorizo on the side (holy shit. That is all.) And, of course, a refreshing glass (or two) of Portuguese Vinho Verde. If dinner is going to be like every night, I will be coming back to the States quite a bit larger than when I left. No matter- one can always jog or something right? Right. Anyway- after hilarious dinner conversation about life and love and European vs American politics (you know its bad when people from other countries are even shitting on Trump…) followed by our “dessert” (acorn liqueur.. surprisingly sweet and addicting. Squirrls might know what they’re doing after all), we all said our goodnights and I hit my bed harder than my pup Maverick hit his head off the wall at the bottom of the stairs when he sneezed and lost his balance (don’t worry, he has a hard head and he was fine). Damn, I miss that goof of a creature. Mav, if you’re reading this, I love you and I miss you and you better not be making out with anyone else while I’m gone.. because I will find out. 

Clover Thrips and Compound Flowers

Such a busy day!

We had a riding lesson with the Austrian horse whisperer at 9:30 before the heat of the day got going. We walked back by following the local paths to the cathedral (below) on the hill and managed to not get lost.

Back at the studio there was bioluminescent bacteria to propagate, agar plates to check and photograph, mushroom prints to make, and a lecture on Machines of Loving Grace and the last Documenta, (all about terrariums). We built our own botanical terrarium, and a fruit fly pooparium.

That’s right! Marta makes fruit flies poop colors and uses the fly activity of eating the colored food and excreting the same color to “print” random images. We made little staging sites in lovely glass candy jars lined with sugar paper and doll house tea services full of colored yeast medium. And I know you are going to ask it: no, the guts of the fruit fly do not mix the colors, they come through “pure” and are optically mixed by the viewer.

Meanwhile on the agar, my pneumonia cultures went no where. Just died. Dr. Graca said it needs a warm body to grow inside of. The footprints from the dogs, however, are super charged with growing bacteria. Meanwhile under the microscope I made a video of a tiny red caterpillar crawling through the individual disk flowers at the center of a daisy.

What is that? Nymphs of clover thrips (Thanks “Old Mill Hill” blogger in the Keeweenaw Peninsula of Upper Michigan.)

Katie and Liz made lovely terrarium landscapes with both living and dead matter. The Alenteju, where Sao Luis is located is very arid like Southern California, full of cacti and good farm land. Lavender and olive trees grow well here.

Katie Barry’s jam jar scale terrarium above. The dandelions puffed out later and looked divine.

Alan Tod ( made a lovely box sculpture of dead plants. He’s been making everyone laugh as he portrays himself as a stereotypical French intellectual but he is comically aware of it. He is making an installation in the courtyard and working on a landscape proposal to limit the eco destructive aspects of the very popular local eucalyptus industry.

Dinner was a cabbage and sausage stew with carrots and bread and home made cheese. Yes, we fit in a cheese making lesson: 2 L of whole milk heated up to body temperature, a table spoon to a quarter cup of squeezed lemon juice, added slowly to the warm milk to cause the curdling reaction. Strain the whole batch though a clean dish towel. The whey will come out, the curds will be squashed together into a ball. Dump it into a bowl and add salt and flavorings. Cover the surface with olive oil too preserve it until ready to eat.

And now a vision of our domestic goddess. 


Local Flora and Fauna

Today was for new food. We went to market and saw octopus, barracuda, and flounder. At lunch Miguel bought us “nespera” which is kinda a tiny apricot shaped mango flavored fruit and we don’t have them at home. It has a brown shiny nut inside. IMG_8533.JPG

The plum tree in the yard is giving up ripe fruit too. It secretes giant, shiny blobs of amber that trap bugs and snails on the trunk before they can get to the ripe fruit above. Extraordinary that a tree will spend sugar resources like that to distract a pest from its seeds.

For dinner, Marta bought sea clams. The sit in sea water, alive all day, until you boil them for dinner. They each had two little exploratory tubes out and about, searching beyond the lips of their shells. It reminds me of Necks Out for Adventure: The True Story of Edwin Wiggleskin by Timothy Basil Ering, who visited Mass Lowell a few years ago.

We teased them about seeing no vegetables so far in Portugal and so were rewarded with greens and zucchini and potatoes for dinner. The pears poached in wine were divine.

We scavenged greens and flowers down by the river for Alain Tod’s terrarium exercise (more on this tomorrow). I found some molds and lichens to put in the agar. The fish bones from dinner and a dog footprint were added to the batch as well. From the river clay we hunted for clams, who scurried into the mud when you first touch them, and oysters, which feel like stones. We captured crabs and noted their size and number of claws: some had none. This one was fiesty and pinched me several times.


We toured Sao Luis for flowers and other botanicals to press and made books of flowers. Marta explained they are smaller here due to less water. Flowers are water/resource intensive for the plant, so plants make them smaller in the Mediterranean hot zone that is this area. We also learned about the cork trees and eucalyptus production and how the cork is sustainable and the eucalyptus acidify the soil and are water robbers. In the image of cork tree below, note the bark has been removed all the way up to the boy in the green shirt. They then date the tree harvest and it is left to grow more bark until the next harvest.IMG_6125.JPG

And last, this image, because I love bugs: the local rhino beetle out for a late evening stroll.  The adults do not eat, just reproduce and die around the fall. It can lift 850 times its own weight. And it can fly.

On Bacteria

We made agar from powder today. Loads of it! After I got back from the urgent care clinic. It is the perfect medium to grow all sorts of gross fungi and bacteria: also known as chance drawings of colors and shapes.

We had 5 L of agar, water, and LB broth and 100ml each had a different additive: oat milk, cow milk, wine, dirt, and almond milk., distinguished by colored food dye. Since I was diagnosed with “community acquired pneumonia” today, I have to cough on each one to see if the antibiotics I took an hour earlier are working.

Two thumbs up for the Portuguese urgent care clinic: for about $25 dollars I got a doctor’s exam and antibiotics, decongestant, and throat syrup. I waited about 10 minutes to see someone. Socialized medicine is so cool. 

This image is called “5 Samples of Pneumonia and 1 flower, Day 1.”

My first iPhone photo down the eyepiece of a microscope. This is a year-old crystal structure grown by a Marta workshop from last summer, in a blue medium.

I think they look like palm fronds.

Marta made for dinner a cod stew with potatoes, hard boiled eggs, with bread and all sorts of cheese, including a Sotonida sheep cheese, a Monte do Pereiro goat cheese, and a Borqueijos sheep cheese. Somehow I think I won’t find these back home. Tomorrow we make a whole milk fresh cheese at home and wine soaked pears. She will also teach me to print mushroom spores. We had acorn brandy as a night cap. They discussed Maja’s performance with the wolves, whether love is just an exchange of needs and favors, and the many uses of human produced collagen.