Monday, November 1, 2010

Finding Inspiration in Cookies: Springerle

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been in a creative rut for quite some time. I stare at my art supplies and all I can do is organize them and put them away. I open a journal and words can’t find their way to the page. I know that the cause of this stress stems from unemployment, but breaking through it is hard to do.

At the beginning of my unemployment, the situation gave me a reason to write. There was so much going on in my head, I had to get it all down to make sense of it. But this coming February will mark my 2-year anniversary of losing my job. I never thought it would last this long. The constant frustration of never hearing back from employers or interviewing and getting excited about the position only to find out I didn’t get an offer has taken its toll. Add to that the negative stigma surrounding the phrase “long-term unemployed” and harsh comments I’ve received about falling into that category have left me feeling scared, discouraged, ashamed and alone. I can’t even find respite in sleep.  Instead of crashing into the pillow and retreating into the crazy dream world behind my eyelids, I lie awake pondering what possessions I can sell to pay the bills, wonder when things will turn around, and try to remember a time when I wasn’t so stressed out.

Writing down my thoughts used to help, but I’ve gotten sick of writing the same worries over and over. I’ve tried filling pages with nothing but words of encouragement, but then a setback will occur and doubt will lodge its destructive-self deep into my head, destroying all the hard work of those positive words. So I pulled out all of my art books for inspiration and turned to the work of my favorite artists to get my mind focused on creativity and hopefulness instead of stress and worry.

In my very first blog post, I mentioned the work of Dan Eldon, who is one of my greatest inspirations. I also spoke of him in my presentation to the Visual Journaling Collective in June. So I began to sift through his journal pages. Then I turned to the work of Keri Smith, another of my favorite artists. She has a book called “How to be an Explorer of the World” that I absolutely love. It is filled with ways to discover the world around you, interact with your surroundings, and truly pay attention to everything you see. She uses a lot of found objects in her work and since acquiring her book a few years ago, I am constantly looking for things, especially when I take walks with Murphy. I have quite a collection of random objects that I’ve discovered throughout our journeys. I also highly recommend her books “Wreck This Journal,” “This is Not a Book,” and “Mess.” Each is a journal with prompts on how to let your creativity go wild. For example, one page instructed me to fill it with dirt. I took one look at my dog who had just dug a hole in my yard and thought, “Perfect!” I ran over, grabbed his foot, wiped it all over the page and presto – art was made! For someone like me who is constantly struggling to “let go of perfect,” this was a big breakthrough. 

The "artist" with his work
In an attempt to jumpstart my creativity, I signed up for two projects: The Sketchbook Project and Mary Ann Moss’ online class, Remains of the Day. However, I encountered the same block and struggled to get started. There is no deadline for my online class, but the Sketchbook Project needs to be sent back by January. The looming deadline added to the list of worries and as I flipped through pages of visual journaling books, my inner critic began to chant “you can’t do this, you’re no good!” Ironically, it was around this time that another of my favorite artists wrote a post on her blog about this very topic. Her name is Dawn DeVries Sokol and she recently released a book called Doodle Diary: Art Journaling for Girls. Her post (click here to read it) really resonated with me and with a copy of the Doodle Diary and another journal in hand, I sat on the deck with Murphy and began to doodle. I tried hard to block out any thoughts, just looked around and put lines on paper. It felt good.

But I knew there was something else I was missing, another inspiration looming out there that I hadn’t yet turned to. Walking into the kitchen to get a snack, it hit me like a brick – The Found Recipe Box. And I remembered a recipe that I had found the first time I flipped through the box. It was a name I didn’t recognize so I had to do a Google search to learn more about it. I dug into the box to retrieve it and as I pulled the tattered piece of paper out, I knew it was just what I needed.

The recipe is for Springerle, which are German cookies that have a design or picture on each cookie made by a special rolling pin. The designs usually have a theme and the images are meant to tell a story. I found many variations of the history of these cookies, but the common thread that runs through each is that they date back centuries (perhaps as early as the 14th century) and were originally pagan tokens of sacrifice. Since people couldn’t afford to offer live animals for sacrifice, they would stamp images on these cookies and offer them instead. Their purpose changed over time, but people still told stories with these treats. They later contained biblical tales, stories of knights, themes of fertility, and celebrated modern life. I found three translations for Springerle: little knight, little jumper and jumping horse (which is my favorite, of course).

Over the past year, I have been collecting Springerle rolling pins and now have four. The images are very different on each one and as I traced my fingers over the ornate designs, I realized how many stories on these pins were already represented in the blog: 

A fish – for the stories of my grandfather and our fishing adventures together. 

Cherries – for the trip Ryan and I took to Door County this summer.

A pecking bird – for the time that the birds tried to bore a hole in the side of my house (a feat which they are still trying to accomplish by the way). 

I dove into the process of making these ancient cookies and I knew just the people I had to share them with: my poetry group. This burden of a creative block has left me unable to write poetry in months, so I knew if anyone would appreciate the attempt at edible creativity, it would be them. The batter itself is not difficult to make. Rolling out the images onto the batter, however, is a whole other story. It took several attempts to get even one useable design, but soon I had a process (which included a lot of flour) and my cookie sheets were filling up with tasty tales. 

They were left to set overnight and the next day I placed the sheets in the oven. The dough is rolled pretty thin, so I was surprised to see how puffy the cookies were after baking. Images came to life and I imagined that each one was packed with possibility. They taste almost like a combination of a sugar cookie and shortbread, but are a little chewier than either of those cookies. I tried to find anise seeds and eventually located them, but they were quite expensive so I opted to leave those off my cookies. A variation my poetry group and I agreed might be worth a try would be to dip the bottoms in chocolate (have I mentioned that we’re all a bunch of chocoholics?). 

After facing my fears and acknowledging my creative block, I knew it was time to do something about it. My inner critic had already assaulted me with the worst insults imaginable so there was nothing worse he/she could say. It was time to shut off that destructive voice and listen to my own. What makes the fear and anxiety of unemployment so difficult to deal with is the lack of control over the situation. But with writing and art, all I have to do is turn off the editor and let intuition guide my hand across the page. I finally started Mary Ann Moss’ Remains of the Day online class. And if she wasn’t all the way across the country in LA, I’d drive to her house and hug her. I have been a big fan of her journals for quite some time and watching her videos for the class, seeing her process, and listening to her say “there is no such thing as a mistake” and “trust your intuition,” has opened the floodgates on my creativity. I’ve turned off the television (which became a crutch recently, a way to escape from all the stress for a while) and have spent hours at my art table surrounded by paper, fabric scraps, ribbon and even my sewing machine (I once wrote a post about my fear of the sewing machine, so this was quite an accomplishment for me). I’ll be sure to post pictures of my creation when it’s completed!

Tomorrow is the 1-year anniversary of the creation of The Found Recipe Box blog. I have a special post planned, complete with a celebratory recipe. I can’t believe how far I’ve come (and how much I still have left to do!). But there is one thing that I’ve been able to count on during the past year – that no matter what the situation in my life might be, there has always been a recipe in the box that accompanies the story. It truly is a magical little box, and I’m constantly reminded of the movie Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium and how the character Molly found her inspiration from a block of wood (I have a post about that too, click here to read it). And this recipe was no exception. Only, this time, it had an added bonus. Not only did it help to tell the tale, but it spun a few of its own. Looking at all those delicious little cookies, I couldn’t help but start writing stories in my mind for each of the characters that had been carved into the dough. Before I started writing this blog, I attempted to start writing a story. It, too, got stuck. But while staring at all those yummy morsels on the counter, I got an idea of where the story should go next. And suddenly, The Found Recipe Box was front and center of the story. In case I need a little extra inspiration, all I have to do is turn over the Springerle recipe card. There’s a portion of a letter on the other side! 

Who knows, maybe someday it will turn into a book. But for right now, I’m just having fun seeing where it will take me. For once, that uncertainty has a positive side. And creativity never tasted so good.


  1. My mom makes these for Christmas every year. They were one of my Grandpa's favorites. I don't share an affinity for the anise flavor, but they really are some of the prettiest cookies around! Thanks for sharing the ways you're trying to get out of your creative rut!!

  2. Oh my goodness! I love that you used your dog's muddy footprint in Keri Smith's journal. I am a big fan of her books, art, writing, etc., as well. Great photo!

  3. Good Afternoon ladies I started making these cookies for my father-in-law as there where part of his German traditions. I like you I'm not the biggest fan of anise flavor so I make two batches one with anise and one with lemon. I now take the time to paint the tops of shapes, I found powder coloring and a bit of vodka along with a tiny paintbrush...and patience they are so beautiful.Now I would love to find more rolling pins.Thanks for sharing your story and photos