Friday, September 30, 2011

September 30, 2011 – Decline and Fall

When does it start? Did they look up one day in Ancient Egypt and say, “Hey, the nose fell off the Sphinx, we better do something about that.” When do things start turning to ruins? How do we tell the difference between Visigoths and Canadians? It’s a compelling question about many ancient empires left in ruins. When do you know?

With all that in mind, in case you haven’t heard yet, the Washington Monument took quite the beating in that recent earthquake centered in Virginia. Now, of course, the government will make every effort to repair and restore the Washington Monument. Or, will they? The American rightwing is determined to obstruct the workings of government at any costs. Will next year see the triumph of their campaign of polarization? Will the Red State/Blue State dichotomy become permanent?

They probably will repair the Washington Monument and we’ll all plod along. Or maybe we’ll look east from the California Republic as Sarahnewt Rick Bachmanromney fiddles while their country collapses around them. It might get interesting.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

September 29, 2011 – Meat Art

Can Tofu paint meat? Yes I can. I admit I have what might appear to be complicated issues with meat. Though I know where I stand in the relationship. I was a vegetarian long ago, but I do eat some meat. I rarely have anything resembling a steak. I am just not a fan. But I love meat art and collect it when I can. The other day I was prepping some canvases and I noticed some of the red was just looking so meaty. The 2011 Project needs a piece of meat art.

I think it might all go back to my love of Chaim Soutine. For those of you who don’t know, Soutine was the Lithuanian-born, French expressionist painter best known for painting meat. Soutine would struggle to buy a side of beef and then paint it over and over while it decayed. Crazy and definitely committed to his craft – he was a painter’s painter. His work, meat and non-meat, was brilliant. I first was introduced to the meat as a kid at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo. I really wish we get something like a big Chaim Soutine show at the de Young. They could even bring in a side of beer and I could paint it during the duration of the exhibit to add a more enhanced experience for the museum going public.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

September 28, 2011 – Stamp Collecting

Stamp collecting is one of those hobbies that few kids bother with.  When I was young, I collected stamps and still have most of them.  The collection is not particularly valuable.  Most of the unused stamps from the 1970’s are worth their face value, so when you adjust for inflation, they are worth even less.  But for most kids, stamp collecting was not about their monetary value.  It was about buying the latest commemoratives at the post office and always learning a little something about geography and history.  Stamp collecting was about older family and friends giving you the stamps they received on letters from foreign places.  It was a way kids connected with the wider world.

Over the course of the 2011 Project many of the postage stamps I have saved all these years have made it into the various art pieces.  Today I was going through old stamps and had a startling revelation.  Stamp Collecting made me into a socialist! 

My impressionable young mind was corrupted by the subversive messages on postage stamps.  I am not talking about the images of tractors and factories on stamps from Hungary or the DDR.  The red star emblazoning Soviet stamps had nothing to do with it.  It was all those left wing stamps put out by the U.S. Postal Service.  Under Nixon’s watch, stamps were promoting the U.N., the Peace Corps and even a whole series glorifying postal workers.  Gerald Ford allowed stamps promoting energy conservation and collective bargaining.  And that old lefty Ronald Reagan allowed stamps promoting public education, credit unions and celebrating social security.

Now, seriously, none of these stamps were controversial in their day and there was no reason they should have been.  And anyway, presidents have little say about postage stamps, but can you imagine if any of these stamps had been released during President Obama’s administration?  Fox News et al would be screaming socialism. 

Years later and I am still learning something from stamps.  They are a little history lesson, or even a time capsule.  40 year old stamps from a time when the United States was a country where most of us saw government as a force for good that was improving our country and improving our lives. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

September 27, 2011 – Keeper of Arch Rock

Last Saturday we hiked to Arch Rock and back at the Point Reyes National Seashore. I love this hike and do it once or twice every year. The midpoint of the hike includes stopping on top of Arch Rock at the end of the trail. It’s a good place to rest and eat lunch. Sitting on top of the rock, you actually don’t get to see the arch unless you scramble down a poorly maintained trail to the beach. I usually am happy to sit up there and take in the view.

Every time I have been there, I always meet one, just one, single seagull. He stands around as if he is the keeper of the rock. I always find it odd that there is never more than one seagull. I am beginning to wonder if it is the same seagull. If you grew up with Brinton Turkle’s book Thy Friend, Obadiah you’ll understand how I could think it was the same gull time after time living on top of his rock. Maybe it is….

Monday, September 26, 2011

September 26, 2011 – Blue Moon

It really isn’t once in a blue moon. A blue moon does not occur in 2011. There are a variety of definitions for a blue moon. There can be two full moons in a month or four full moons in a season. The only chance we have this year would be a rather unlikely big volcanic explosion tossing enough dust and ash into the atmosphere. Then we’d see some amazing sunsets and a few blue moons.

My blue moon is all really about the color. I love the blue on retro moon maps from 1960’s atlases. I also like all the quaint, or is it corny, place names that appear on those old maps. They hearken back to the era when imaginative “explorers” with telescopes charted the moon looking for civilizations up there in places like the Bay of Rainbows and the Marsh of Decay. The names get even better in Latin with places like the Lacus Somniorum. When I look through those atlases, I realize by now we should be living up there in moon bases or at least taking vacations on the shores of the Sea of Nectar.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

September 25, 2011 – Rothkollages

Mark Rothko is a painter who unexpectedly influenced my collage work. Over the years I kept encountering his work in museums and, I have to confess, I didn’t always quite “get it.” But something was getting me.

In 2001 I started creating collages where the only element used was maps. Over time the pieces evolved. The pieces became more monochromatic and started having less structured patterns. I started using a 3-hole bunch on old maps to generate small dots of map. Then I created pieces where there were nine dots of map per square inch. When looked at closely they are works of with intricate detail. From a distance the detail is lost and the “dot” pieces take on the look of abstract squares and rectangles of color. I had done a few larger pieces when I finally began to recognize Rothko’s influence.

So for a painter, who was born on this day in 1903, a series of little collages made from the scraps from the 2011 Project. Little Rothkos, or if you prefer, Rothkollages.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

September 24, 2011 – Naked Ladies

Anyone going online to search for “naked ladies” might be a bit surprised when these come up. These are the Naked Ladies that are along Northern California roadsides and trails late in the summer. They are a variety of Amaryllis — Amaryllis belladonna to be exact. Their bright pink flowers with little or no foliage in the golden, dry grass always say look at me.

The Bear Valley Trail at the Point Reyes National Seashore is one of my favorites. It’s about 9 miles roundtrip out to Arch Rock and back. I was out there today, and right about halfway to the ocean there is the Divide Meadow with hundreds of Naked Ladies.

Friday, September 23, 2011

September 21, 2011 – Sidewalk Topography

I’ve been walking around my neighborhood photographing sidewalks this week. That actually involves a certain amount of risk. People might think I am one the cranky busybodies who is gathering evidence to complain to the City about damaged sidewalks. Trust me, I have much better things to do.

You have to watch where you’re going, but I always find it tempting to look down at the sidewalk. The sidewalk, as seen from six feet up, has a quality similar to the view from the window of an airplane. There is a real map-like appeal to sidewalks with their cracks and lines and varying texture. This became even more apparent after printing some of the photos. After 10 years of working with map collage, I feel it’s time to experiment with some other map like elements. I believe there will be more pieces in the future using sidewalk photos….

Thursday, September 22, 2011

September 22, 2011 – Mono Lake

There is that feeling one gets near the end of a long trip when something familiar comes into view. It may be a freeway exit, a large building near home or in my case the Bay Bridge. There is that moment when you pass through the tunnel on Yerba Buena Island and there it is, San Francisco. It always looks extra special from that view. On the way back to San Francisco there is another familiar sign that you’re almost home — Mono Lake.

After one of those long flights across the continent, I love when Mono Lake appears out the window thousands of feet below. As soon as we pass over the lake I know I am back home in California. From there it’s a quick zip across Yosemite, head towards San Jose, turn right at Mount Hamilton and before you can say turn off your electronic devices you’re back at SFO.

Then there is the other approach to Mono Lake. It’s about 235 miles of driving and, if you do it right, it takes most of the day after poking around the Tioga Pass and Toulumne Meadows in Yosemite. You descend down the back of the Sierra into a hot dry landscape, and there is the blue shimmer of Mono Lake.

Mono Lake has gotten smaller over the years. The 60 year old map I used in this piece shows a lake that was much bigger. Los Angeles started tapping the water and the lake level dropped. There is one advantage of the lower water level. It has exposed the tufa formations created by geothermal heated springs under the lakebed. The lakeshore has a wonderful what-planet-is-this look about it. I’ve been photographing and painting the lake over the years.

Now might be the time to hurry and see the lake up close. The Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve is on the list of 70 state parks that California is threatening to close due to budget problems. I still can’t get my mind around the idea of closing a state park. It’s nice to see the lake as I fly home, but even better up close and personal.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

September 21, 2011 – The Book

The book might not be feeling so great these days. If you can get people to read, you have to look hard for a bookstore. And then there is the competition from the latest gadgets, including the gadgets that promise you the experience of reading a book electronically.

Part of the experience of reading the book is finding the book to read. You might be given the book, or borrowed the book from someone who has thought you would appreciate it. There is the fun of browsing bookstores and libraries seeing what you can find. Sometimes you are out of something to read. There are those times when you end up picking out a book that happened to be handy. More than once I have even bought books in airport bookstores that I never would have read if I wasn’t in a pinch. Some of those are books I have really enjoyed.

And there is the experience of the object. Cracking the book open for the first time, holding the book. Looking at the book sideways and seeing your progress marked by the bookmark sticking out between the pages. Then there is the surprise of finding some scrap left behind in an old book. I even did an entire art piece about that last December.

With all that in mind, today’s piece for the 2011 Project is about the book. One of the themes resonating through the project is time. There are pieces about past, present and future. This piece in particular may end up being even more a time capsule. As books in a non-electronic form start to vanish, I have used elements of discarded and damaged books for this piece to preserve them for the future. And this piece also is another work of tactile art. In the future, touching the piece will be part of a past experience of handling the book as object.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

September 20, 2011 – Uncle Bill’s Postcards

Last month, on August 9th, I received a package. My friend Karen sent me a box that contained some of her late Uncle Bill’s old postcards. The postcards were mostly from Berlin in the 1930’s. There were images of the city before it was destroyed during the war, some creepy images of Hitler and a quite a few images of the Olympic Stadium and other buildings from the 1936 Olympics. Uncle Bill did not pick-up these postcards while on vacation. Uncle Bill was with the 82nd Airborne as part of the occupation. On the back of one postcard of the stadium, in Uncle Bill’s handwriting, was the note, “Was here, Sunday Aug., 9, 45”.

World War II was already over in Europe on the day that Uncle Bill was at the Olympic Stadium. Before the 82nd Airborne occupied Berlin, Uncle Bill had landed at Normandy in a glider. He fought at the Battle of the Bulge and he was with the 82nd Airborne when they liberated the Wöbbelin Concentration Camp. Uncle Bill was awarded both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. During World War II, so many people were part of the effort to defeat fascism and so many fought and millions gave their lives for freedom. All of their efforts should be remembered and honored, but still, some of them were extraordinary, they were heroes. Uncle Bill was one of those heroes.

I have chosen this day in particular to honor Uncle Bill. Because today is the day that the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy officially takes effect. One’s sexual orientation is irrelevant in their ability to serve their country. It just doesn’t matter. Thousands of gay and lesbian Americans have served their country, and like Uncle Bill, they had to serve in silence. Uncle Bill, like so many of his generation, fought for our freedom. Today, the country he fought for is a more just place where the words liberty and justice for all have moved closer to the truth.

Monday, September 19, 2011

September 19, 2011 – Workin’ on the Railroads

The first time I came to California, it was on a train. I was with my mom, brother and great grandmother. It was a great adventure. It was back in the 1970’s when an effort was made to bring back rail travel in America via Amtrak. I love traveling by train but it becomes increasingly difficult and more and more expensive in the United States. Even back to my days of traveling around Europe, some of my best memories always go back to the train.

As much as I love trains, the stations themselves are rivals for my affection. No airport can compare with the grandeur and excitement of a big city train station. And I also love the small stations. For example, I usually make a stop in Kelso, California on my desert road trips. The depot is lovingly restored, even though trains no longer make any stops there.

As our economy teeters and millions are out of work, bringing back and modernizing the railroads is such an obvious, yet ignored, solution. A solution that creates jobs, lessens the need for imported oil, and is better for the environment. Creating a world where travel is a more genteel and relaxing experience. And I think of all the interesting people I’ve met over the years traveling by train. You just don’t meet people driving down an interstate. What are we waiting for?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

September 18, 2011 – Orange

During the course of the 2011 Project there have been some mixed media pieces that are solely about a particular color. Today, with fall colors on the way in some parts, the color is orange. It’s all about orange.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

September 17, 2011 – Emperor Norton

Most people don’t think of America as a monarchy. They assume the Declaration of Independence back in 1776 saw the end of kings and emperors. Well, not quite. In San Francisco on this day back in 1859, Emperor Norton declared himself “Emperor of these United States” as well as the “Protector of Mexico.” Now, San Francisco has been known for all sorts of eccentric characters throughout its history, but in the case of Emperor Norton, we all pretty much went along with him and to a certain extent recognized Emperor Norton as our beloved monarch.

His Highness was ahead of his time. It was Emperor Norton who called for the building of bridges to span the Bay as well as a tunnel to Oakland. Thank Emperor Norton the next time you ride BART. He issued a decree to form a League of Nations. And in 1945 the U.N was founded right in San Francisco. Some of Emperor Norton’s ideas still have not come true, but maybe in time. Emperor Norton abolished the U.S. Congress due to its corruption. In 1869 he declared both the Republican and Democrat parties abolished as well.

Friday, September 16, 2011

September 16, 2011 – Banana Slug

I love banana slugs (Ariolimax californicus). They’re photogenic, fun to paint and just plain cool. I love seeing such exotic looking creatures with that shock of bright yellow in a damp redwood forest. They always remind us, that even though we do not have a rainforest in California, we’re close with our fogforest. Today I was down the San Mateo Coast and went to Butano State Park near Pescadero. It is prime banana slug habitat. My young friend Zora is already one year old, she needed to meet the banana slugs. There were plenty out and about and as friendly as a banana slug can be.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

September 15, 2011 – The Giant Baby Tried to Warn Them

Everyone was having a great time on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. The Giant Baby tried to warn everyone, but it was too late.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

September 14, 2011 – Canning Time

In the pile of things waiting to be cut up for the 2011 Project was a 1941 edition of the Ball Blue Book. It was a home canning cookbook published by the folks at the Ball Brothers Company in Muncie, Indiana. They were the company that originally made mason jars. Back in 1993 they sold off the jar manufacturing division, but the current parent company, Jarden Home Brands, is still making mason jars in Indiana.

The cookbook has tips and recipes to can pretty much can anything you might eat. From Tomato Butter to Head Cheese to a mysterious condiment called Peruvian Sauce. Of course the book has more familiar items from my childhood such as canned peaches, pickles and tomato sauce.

I grew up in a city family with access to inexpensive and good farmers’ markets. Canning was part of the routine from late summer and into the fall. We even lived in a Victorian house with a special room in the cellar to line up all the jars of peaches, bread and butter pickles, dill pickles, pickled beets, jams of all kinds, chili sauce and the most important canned item of all, red pepper relish. It was slow food before anyone had coined the term and we were all pretty much locavores back then. In a Buffalo winter, last summer’s canned beaches are far better than some “fruit” at the supermarket that was shipped in from thousands of miles away. We did not recycle the jars — we re-used them.

Canning is becoming a lost art for many, even in our foodie-obsessed culture. As the economy collapses, it’s a skill we need to get back. Even in our small apartment kitchens.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

September 13, 2011 – Yma Sumac

“Do you actually listen to her?” I still remember when I heard that question for the first time. Of course I do. I love Yma Sumac. It’ll started down one afternoon at the Rancho de la Luna in Joshua Tree about 20 years ago. It’s getting close to the Yma Hour. Cocktails, Yma, and dancing and don’t forget to play her loud. I had the good fortune to see her live a few years later. At that stage in Yma Sumac’s career it was more happening than a concert. At first she was a bit timid until she remembered she was in San Francisco. Yma came to life as the audience screamed at cheered for her like the megastar she truly was.

So yes. I listen to Yma Sumac. At times, there is nothing better than a bit of Yma. Like those empty roads between Twentynine Palms and Death Valley. Racing along, windows down, sun roof open, hot desert air blasting into the car and the coyotes turning their heads up to listen to that magical voice.

Monday, September 12, 2011

September 12, 2011 – Mountain Relief

I’ve always been drawn to relief maps in atlases. This is long before the days of simply going online to look at satellite and street views, etc. (which I also do). The relief view really came into it’s own in the early 1960’s. The 1963 atlas I recently picked up is a perfect example. This was the era of space exploration. When you opened up that atlas it was all about giving you the sense of excitement that John Glenn or Yuri Gagarin felt when they gazed down upon us.

The relief views are exaggerated and at times they almost feel hokey. That is until you drive down Route 550 towards Durango, Colorado. When you’re in those valleys where the mountains truly tower above you, the relief maps make all the more sense. Today, for the 2011 Project, it’s a piece about mountains. For the installation, I think this one will be hung next to my piece about rivers.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11, 2011 – Sister Wendy’s Miracle

For some time I have been pondering how I should address the Anniversary of September 11th. So many pieces for the 2011 Project have been date specific. Obviously this would be a date I could not ignore. The most obvious choice would be some kind of memorial piece. As important as memorials are, I’ll save that for another time. Instead, I decided to focus on one of the most positive things I witnessed in the aftermath of that horrible morning.

I remember back to the days shortly after September 11th. Within a couple of days many of us had to just turn the news off. It was not about forgetting, but people needed things to distract them, if even for a brief moment. Not surprisingly, the shelves of video stores were emptying out.

During that week, I’ll never forget what was possibly the most beautiful thing I have ever seen on TV. It was a few nights after September 11th. It was the evening television broadcasts were starting get back to “normal” programming. At last it was possible to watch something, anything else. I can’t say what the date was, but the first program I watched that night was at 9 p.m. on KQED. It was back to the regular schedule and Sister Wendy was on with her new series.

I love Sister Wendy. She is sweet, entertaining and loveable, a delightful personality and, with that, she is incredibly smart and knowledgeable. She carries on the tradition of the days when PBS was known as educational TV. No one can explain a work of art like Sister Wendy. I knew Sister Wendy would be a perfect distraction.

In 2001 she had a new series called the American Collection. It had a visit to a different American art museum every week. The episode for that night had been filmed in New York City at the Met. There was Sister Wendy in the city we had been watching all week. And there she was, showing us work after work of Islamic art at the Met. This brilliant, endearing, Catholic nun was going on about the beauty of Islamic Art — that moment was magic and truly divine. For just a brief instance, against all the anger and fear in the world, there was a voice of sanity. It was a reminder that, in spite of all the evil in the world, the world is a good place. I have never felt it was ironic that Sister Wendy was on TV that night in an episode filmed at the Met in New York. It was miraculous, but it was not ironic.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

September 10, 2011 – Postcard Land

I have pretty well established that I love using vintage postcards in my art. They figure prominently in quite a few pieces for the 2011 Project. One of my favorite things about them is all the old, stylized fonts that were used in the postcards and on the covers of the postcard booklets. Two years ago I worked on a project making my own, handmade postcard booklets. One of the best parts was the excuse to recreate the stylized lettering in the style of the old postcards from 70 or so years ago.

Friday, September 9, 2011

September 9, 2011 – The Color of Apples

San Francisco often feels like it has an absence of seasons. I only sense fall is coming because apples appear at the farmer’s markets. Apples are ending up in my kitchen ready to go under the knife for pies, cobblers and crisps. The meeting of apples, sugar, cinnamon and butter is one of the best things happening in my oven.

With no disrespect to some of the apples we grow in California, our apples are just okay. All apples are not equal. Certain things grow best in certain places where the climate is just right and the soil is ideal. There are some pretty good apples from places like Vermont and New Hampshire. You can cheat in March. That is when it’s fall in New Zealand and you can even buy some decent apples in the supermarket. Once in a while you might even find an organic apple from Washington State that has some flavor (most are bland industrial apples). But to truly experience the apple at its best, it is usually from Western New York.

Western New York is where the bitter cold winter and the hot humid summer team up to create the best apples. In New York City they think everything beyond Queens is “Upstate New York.” But far beyond Upstate and their weekend homes, on the edge of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie is another place. It’s Western New York and it is where the best apples come from. New Mexico has green chilis, Northern California has wine grapes, Maine has lobster and Western New York grows the premium apples. If you’ve had them, you know….

Thursday, September 8, 2011

September 8, 2011 – The Maine Danger

Take a few vintage postcards from Maine, cut and reconfigure and then the truth comes out. Giant Lobsters are a serious threat. At the Old School House in York they fill the room with mannequins. Don’t be fooled. This isn’t about showing us what life was like in a 200 year old classroom. The mannequins are decoys to distract the ravenous lobsters. If you’re considering a trip to Maine, be aware of the hazards that await you and arm yourself with melted butter and cocktail sauce.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

September 7, 2011 – Pieces of Picasso

Today I finally got to the de Young to see the Picasso mega-show. Even as a museum member, seeing these hyped up shows is a challenge due to the crowds. I’ve learned that mornings, mid week are the key, if you have the time. Anyone who has been to enough art museums over the years has probably seen their share of Picassos. He had a long and prolific career. With such a huge body of work, even some of the smaller and flung art museums around the world often have a Picasso.

We always benefit when museums are under renovation and the collection takes a road trip around the planet. The show at the de Young is a treasure trove of work from the Musée National Picasso in Paris. Having seen Picasso’s work in many museums, including the SFMoMA and the Legion of Honor did not prepare me for this show. The ability to see a large amount work spanning a lifetime is a very different museum experience. It’s not the same as looking in an art book or seeing a handful of pieces in one museum.

The five things I took away from seeing it all at once were:

  1. A real insight into Picasso’s artistic development and earlier work. So many pieces did not “look” like a Picasso. Who knew he even painted a lighthouse.
  2. A much better understanding of artists who influenced his work and the subsequent artists he continues to influence.
  3. It never fails to surprise how much vivid paintings can be in person. Even familiar works like his 1937 Portrait of Dora Maar are surprising. Colors that border on day-glo at times.
  4. In case you hadn’t figured it out yet — Picasso was a boob man. He loved ‘em, really, really, loved them.
  5. And, a few postcards for today’s piece for the 2011 Project were purchased as we exited through the gift shop.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

September 6, 2011 – Sylvester

Do ya wanna funk? Won’t ya tell me now? If ya wanna funk, let me show ya how.

Gaze into the disco ball. If you’re blessed, you may have a vision of San Francisco’s legendary disco diva Sylvester smiling back at you on the dance floor. We lost Sylvester way too soon but his spirit still lives and watches over the City he loves. Today would have been Sylvester’s 64th birthday, but he really wasn’t born until he came home to San Francisco back in 1967.

Sylvester said, “My life started when I moved to San Francisco.”

Many of us feel the same way in our magical city. We know it is where life really begins.