Welcome to a blog of my own. Mostly I prefer to let the images do the heavy lifting, but sometimes, it helps to get a sense of the thought process that lie behind the work. Since writing is in many ways partner to my process, whether contemplative or whimsical, a few words now and again can prove illuminating.
As I was preparing for the upcoming exhibition “The Show at the Top of the Stairs at the TAG Gallery in Los Angeles (August 11-25, 2018), a friend of mine made me laugh when he responded to my work, Nigori Tempest 2. He said it reminded him of watching a front-loading washing machine. There is a resemblance to the shapes clothes make as they tumble in soapy water just as substances of differing viscosity do when they move in liquids-think oil and water. Like my friend, I sometimes stop and gaze at front loaders with a good window view. Car washes have their fascination, too. The world can be an exciting place when looked at just so.
For the record, that isn’t how quite these images originated.
Clearly though, there is something going on in these images. And here’s the skinny: the title is taken from the contents of the bottle I photographed. Nigori is a kind of sake, Japanese rice wine. Nigori is unfiltered sake. Consequently, it contains sediment from the rice it was fermented from. The nigori is meant to be stirred up before pouring and drinking making the liquid cloudy.
I happened to have been given a small bottle and found the clear round shoulders of the bottle and the white swirling particles enchanting… it set my imagination going. Because it is a contained environment, like a snow globe or a terrarium, it reminded me of how fragile our planet looks from outer space with its thin layer of atmosphere. The way the sediment moved reminded me of how sand and snow move at the direction of wind and water. The muted colors of the nigori with its slurry transforming the interior of the bottle’s landscape held its own fascination. When still, the landscape looked much like a dune desert or an ice field piled with drifts and the mystery of their movement. And it also says something about perturbation in a closed system -- when sufficiently swirled, it looks like a dust storm. This often meant having to wait for hours between taking pictures while waiting for the sediment to settle once disturbed. And each time things did settle down, there was a subtly different “landscape.”
This would be the time to invoke William Blake’s poem that starts, “To see a World in a Grain of Sand.” It’s a sweet poem, and I’m going to leave that up to you. Here are a couple of interesting links to take you there (it’s not long). Another inspiration was the Stanislaw Lem novel, Solaris, with Lem's descriptions of an alien landscape. And the film version is pretty faithful to the intent of the book.
So many hands pull invaders
loose from earth, trying to return
to the old order.
So many spades bite
into rain soaked, sun brittle,
clay, crumbling into fine
sandy dust. Upturned and damp
it is readied receive new life,
descendants of old friends.
So many fingers crusted thick
with mud, probe beneath the sun
soaked ground into its cooler
depths where new roots reach out.
So many relentless days and years
digging, digging, digging
to return natives to their rightful
land try to regain lost wisdom.
So many shells of hands lie
lifeless in a pile.
Worn leather, sand, gritty clots
of earth, cling to canvas,
So many five-fingered shapes
splayed out, cracked
and coated with traces
of their work,
the next task.
The geography of Robertson Boulevard, just one block south of Beverly Boulevard, is a strange attractor. It's a short block where the cities of Los Angeles, West Hollywood, and Beverly Hills touch. There are tony, high-end shops and a restaurant noted for its celebrity patrons. Hollywood tour buses glide through daily, both riders and guides hoping to catch a glimpse of someone famous.
Besides the denizens who work and shop there, this block is host to visits by celebrities of many stripes and the paparazzi who "feed" on them, looking for their money shot. Theirs is a peculiar symbiotic relationship in which the celebrities get the media exposure they need and the paparazzi get paid. It is part of the job. Once word goes out by text or e-mail, paparazzi begin to swarm on the streets like wasps at the scent of fresh meat. The “meat” is the celebrity du jour, who may be an actor with a fading career trying to create some buzz, a hopeful rising star seeking more media exposure, or a celebrity simply stoking his or her celebrityhood. In most cases, the prey is willing and surprisingly gracious. Until their subject emerges into a public space or word goes out that they've slipped out the back, paparazzi watch and wait, cameras at the ready.
Having the chance to see this first hand as a result of working in the area over a period of several years was both fascinating and unsettling. Walks to and from lunch and breaks offered a number of opportunities to see these events unfold up close. These images were taken with small point-and-shoot cameras as they were easily kept in pocket or purse and allowed me to be a tourist in their world.
As I think about the pieces I might submit for this year's Palos Verdes Art Center holiday exhibit, I am still enjoying the buzz from having had several pieces in last year's event, one of which, "A Propensity for Dendridic Arbors," was honored with a Best of Show award given by the Open Artists Group. The award came as a pleasant surprise--I have always considered myself fortunate simply to have work accepted. Why? Because there are a lot of talented people also presenting their best efforts, so the selection process always has an element of chance and subjectivity. The quality is certainly there, but some work may not meet the curator's taste or vision. And while it is always a bit disappointing not to make the cut, it is a part of the process.
Having the piece accepted was particularly rewarding as it had an unusual evolution. Some months earlier I'd been thrashing around ideas for another exhibit, "Optic Nerve" and while driving I caught a broadcast of Radiolab on the topic of neural enrichment. The phrase "a propensity for dendric arbors" stuck. I could envision dendrites, the fibers of nerves branching out like tree branches. It struck me once again how effective patterns in nature seem to find a way to multiple uses and in very different domains. And the metaphoric nature of language tied things together as the nerve fibers branch out in tree-like structures intertwining as they send electrical impulses through the nervous system.
The piece was received well, but it seemed cramped being contained in a 16x20-inch mat and frame. It wanted to be larger. As an experiment, I had the image printed on a smooth satiny fabric through a dye sublimation process, which allowed a larger printed image than I might have otherwise done (50x36 inches). It was submitted as a long hanging and I found that while there was no glass cleaning involved, the piece did require ironing.
So, here is am, on the verge of preparing this year's submission. As I look through the images I've created, considering which ones to enter, trying to once again to select pieces that might catch the curators eye, and yet trying to have no expectation of success, I also need to keep in mind that the work is the work. But without ironing this year.
Owens Valley, Land of Surprises
The Owens Valley is a source of continual surprise, even though I'm only there a few days a year. I travel with a group of painters from the Henry Fukuhara Workshop (although I do not paint). Watching them offers another way to look at things, although the underlying principles are pretty consistent. This year we were able to spend time in Swansea, courtesy of the Center for Land Use Interpretation and the folk who scout out and arrange places of interest. Swansea was a thriving miner's town back in the day (in the 1870s), taking its name from the hometown of the Welsh miners who came to extract, smelt and transport silver ore from the Cerro Gordo mines. That was before the 1872 Lone Pine earthquake that lifted the lake shoreline, and the debris flow in 1874 pretty much wiped out what remained. I looked at a Google satellite image of the area--I could follow the path of the last debris flow from a few years back; it flowed right through what was Swansea. However, there is an amazing persistence and resilience in people who live there that drives them to make things work out one way or another. Restoration and rebuilding are common themes. There is also an acceptance that nature is the 300-pound gorilla.
It is not an easy environment as regional author Mary Austin knew well. Referring to "this brown land" she called it "the land of little rain" in her writings. And it is not easy to believe that it was once, in glacial times, this valley was filled with 250 feet of water. But the glaciers are long gone and the landscape has changed many times over. What amazes me is the path that the Owens River still takes through the valley. It sways a slender green thread that slips through the brown and yellow land holding the grand crazy quilt together, refusing to give in.
Winter on the Madrona Marsh Preserve is dictated by the rains. The Southern California rainy season usually starts in late November and lasts through March, filling the marsh lowlands with its seasonally characteristic vernal pools. This makes March, sitting as it does on the cusp of spring, the beginning of new cycle of life in the wettest time of the year. The particular day in March when these images were taken (2013) was not during a particularly wet winter, but there was a good quantity of water collected in the tules and in the willows section, especially in the little hollows, across much of the marsh. That day was in many ways a typical walk on the land, although, for those who spend time on the Preserve, the idea of a “typical” day is an interesting notion because things are constantly in process. There is often a sense of the duality of time suspended and of continual change.
Within these two constants I often find magic at work on the Preserve. This is not the exotic kind of magic of movie sorcerers or magicians, but the mundane variety that comprise everyday wonders. It is the magic of the variety of birds on the land and their many different songs, in the stages of leaf growth and flowering and fruiting of the trees, the amazing chatter of the Pacific tree frogs, the parade and scurrying of ants, bees, butterflies, chittering of insects, the curiosity of dragonflies zipping by, the grace, presence and personalities of the wildflowers and grasses, and the magic unseen in the dark pools of water in winter that reflect everything off a profound black surface. This is the deep kind of magic that sneaks up and surprises with small whispers if you allow yourself to breathe, be still and listen. And there is always the interplay of light and life.
The five images in this exhibit offer an opportunity to sense the timelessness of time I experienced on that one day in March. These images, taken in the willow section of the pools of water are windows that look at the past and present and hint at the future. In the image one can see layers of activity: the spiky pollen and flowers that sit on the surface; the still bare branches and sky reflected on the surface of the water; the leaves from the previous year under the water that have yet to decompose; the branches fallen and slowly decomposing; and the deep dark underlayer of humus. The images are also an experiment in materials (fabric) and process (dye sublimation) in trying to capture some of the sense of flow in the essence and the magic of life within the Preserve.
View to a Kiln
Last May, I returned to an area south of Lone Pine called Cottonwood Creek. It is a dry sandy chunk of washboard road off the 395 surrounded by desert shrubs and, when there is a spit of rain, by hardy wildflowers out for their brief bright romp. The road, which heads toward the lakebed of the Owens Valley, ends at the site of the Cottonwood Creek kilns. These earthen beehive-shaped kilns were used to make charcoal in the heyday of mining in the area. They are fairly tall structures, now cracked open and mostly empty, their interiors exposed, dark black char at the base attesting to the heat that once created fuel used to smelt silver, lead and copper. The charcoal was made from wood – cottonwood - which was relatively abundant at one time. Today there are no cottonwoods at Cottonwood Creek, and there is no creek either. The landscape consists largely of woody shrubs and hardy plants in the fine, dusty sand and the remnant of a berm that likely channeled mountain runoff into the Lake Owens. And what also remains is the irony of a place name that hints at the past, as place names often do, of what once existed there.