Friday, October 26, 2012

Trickle-down Eco-nomics

Low tide yesterday wasn't particularly low, and the water was unusually murky and turbulent, but it was my last day to visit the rocky intertidal zone before heading back to the bay area to finish and fire my artworks for the exhibition.

No TPERP volunteers were at the tidepools, and I was wearing my Cabrillo volunteer shirt (even the Artist in Res has to wear one!), so I was asked a lot of questions. Especially about this.

There'd been a bit of an offshore storm (the reason for the murky water), and a dead Southern kelp crab had washed ashore. That's my foot next to him for scale, so though I didn't have a measuring device with me at the time, I can tell his carapace was nearly 5 inches across. A big male. Females of this crab are about half the size of males, and 5 inches is about the max size for the species.

That thing on his head? A barnacle. Actually several barnacles: one big one and several tiny ones. All still alive. Though not for long, probably. His corpse would eventually wash back out in the waves, break up, and degrade. Sessile creatures, unable to move once they adhere themselves to a surface as juveniles, the barnacles were stuck in a doomed situation.  

After finding him, I stayed at the tidepools much longer than I'd intended, because he drew quite a crowd. Before that, I'd mostly been pointing out the best area to watch the hermit crabs. Hundreds and hundreds of hermit crabs, housed in all kinds of different shell species, were scuttling around one particular rock shelf, just under the cliffs. Which was also the shallowest, easiest area to walk around.

Many adults asked me what species of crab this big red guy was, and my stock answer was that I didn't know the species; I could tell it was a spider crab (a family of long-legged crabs that includes those charming decorator crabs) but I didn't have a guidebook with me and wasn't sure. Now I know it's Taliepus nuttallii. Not a common find in the tidepool area. These guys are kelp forest dwellers, subtidal herbivores.

I knew it was a corpse and not just a molt, because he was quite heavy and smelled bad and attracted flies. The giant kelp these guys live on and feed on can be uprooted in heavy storms and wash ashore. Most of the time the crabs carried inshore on detached kelp would make their way back to the kelp forest, alive. I have no clue what happened to this guy. 

People also asked me if he could be eaten. Yeah, they asked if this particular crab could be eaten. This species is edible, and sometimes fished -- though more than 90 of the commercially fished crab in California is a different species: the Dungeness crab. But they made it clear they meant this crab personally. Every time some guy (it was always a man) asked me that, it could have been an opportune teaching moment, the time to let them know that collecting anything -- for consumption or any other purpose -- from a national park is prohibited. But other and more compelling teaching moments were buried in that rather bizarre question.

Eating a found, dead crab? Yuck. Marine organisms degrade very, very quickly once they die. It's almost like there's an accelerated cycle of life in the water. Like if you gave the ecosystem amphetamines, or filmed it in high speed, that would be an accurate representation, compared to land ecosystems.

And there's another factor. I've been exposed to some pretty rank things in my life: watched autopsies, been a veterinary surgical assistant, done necropsies myself on all kinds of animals when I was a zookeeper. And when I worked in a mortuary, I was exposed to even worse stuff. But the only mortal thing that ever made me barf was a dead arthropod I removed from its exhibit. The flesh had turned to liquid, and as I heaved it from the water, that liquid was exposed to the air, and literally poured out of the exoskeleton, right onto me.

Okay, I take that back. Shellfish has made me barf lots of times. I was in high school before anyone suspected that maybe I didn't get food poisoning with incredible frequency, that maybe I wasn't merely unlucky when it came to dining out. Too bad, really: crab was one of my favorites, a rare delicious treat. And rock lobster burritos? Man, I loved those when I was a kid and we vacationed in Baja. It always ended badly, and everyone concluded that I had a tender stomach, and that vacations had bad mojo for me.  

At least I'm not allergic to chitin. Chitin is the building block of all arthropod exoskeletons, land and marine. It has some almost magical properties. I'm exaggerating; there's no real magic. But its usefulness is amazing. Another teaching moment here! Commercially produced crop seed is often coated with chitin, because it can improve agricultural yields by as much as 50%. Okay, maybe it is really magic. Chitin is a common ingredient in animal feeds as well, because it aids in the digestion of whey -- another common ingredient in animal feeds, but one which herbivores like cattle otherwise cannot digest properly. And because it has wound-healing properties, it's used to make some suture materials and burn dressings, as well as many cosmetics.

The shellfish humans consume annually produces thousands upon thousands of pounds of waste shell. Rather than being dumped back in the ocean (it was, prior to the last century), chitin now powers a multi-million dollar global industry. Handily and somewhat ironically, chitin is also used in wastewater treatment and water purification technologies. (There's a wastewater treatment plant just down the road from the Cabrillo tidepools. That'll be another post.) It's a common ingredient in "diet" supplements, because it binds fat. It also binds metals and PCBS, so it's useful in toxic waste removal. But outside of this technological use, toxins a crab is exposed to stay in the animal, meat and shell. Classic food-chain concentration. Consider that fact for a moment. While also considering that crabs are regularly consumed by otters and shorebirds, among others

Shorebirds such as this egret, feeding at the tidepools while I was showing the dead kelp crab to visitors. Talk about a teaching moment!

And what about molted shells? Or shell that's discarded by predators? Well, it biodegrades...but whatever PCBs and other toxins bound to the chitin remain in the ecosystem.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


I can't believe I'm having so much trouble posting photos again. And this post was going to be LOADED with photos! I went crazy with the camera. Then this borrowed computer went crazy. Now it won't let me flip pictures.

So we're stuck with only the horizontal pictures. Boring. Limiting. Like only being allowed to work in only one medium.

If someone had told me when I started this journey that I had to choose only one medium -- foreverandever limited to just that one -- metal would've won. Just as if I had to choose only one music genre, to the exclusion of all others, it would be blues. Choices are a wonderful luxury, big menus that fold out into page after page are dizzying in their possibilities...but metal and blues are basic nutrients. I could manage; I wouldn't starve.

Back in July I visited the San Diego State University arts department, and after touring the ceramics department we walked over to the metal sculpture area where I met Christopher Lee, an SDSU alum working there on a monumental commission, and his assistant, ceramics grad student Wes French.

Chris is a prolific public artist. If you've been to San Diego, you've probably seen his work. He and other local artists volunteer at SDSU's foundry, creating opportunities for art students to work in metal, regardless of their discipline. A furniture major who wants to design  bronze feet or knobs for a cabinet? A potter interested in casting a vessel in aluminum? This is an ideal place to try it.

It takes a group of students several weekends of work, culminating in the pour. There's more work after the pour, of course: clean up, chasing (removing excess metal), assembly, patination. But the pour is the big draw, the main entree, what we all want to see.

I've been interested in metal work since before learning to sculpt. My studio equipment includes several different welding setups and a small homemade forge, and I know at some point I'll add casting of some sort. And I spent a decade working as a professional art model (part of which overlapped my art studies), including modeling for monumental works. Lisa Reinertson, known for her massive figurative works in ceramic and bronze, is both a friend and a former client. I modeled for her monumental public bronze, Mother Earth, which stands in a wine country traffic roundabout just a few hundred feet off I-80, in Suisun Valley, about halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento:

I've seen and participated in a lot of public sculpture steps, from scale measurements to modeling to installation to maintenance. But I'd never actually seen a pour. Wes invited me to come watch. I watched the watchers, too. SDSU's Art Council and the new department director were there.

That's Chris Lee in leather, explaining things to viewers behind the safety tape. Then Mitch Younker, looking like the tin man, checks the temperature of the furnace. Even with the lid closed, protective clothing and a reeallly long probe, Mitch is getting baked here.

While bronze ingots are being added (down a chute) into the hole in the furnace lid, and the metal is getting up to pouring temperature (2100 degrees), they're setting up the molds for casting. 

The furnace cover slides to one side and a winch lifts the crucible out. See that greenish pitchfork-looking thing on the ground between the furnace and the molds? They'll set the crucible into that.

They lower the crucible in place, attach the crane to the top, and raise the handles; this allows the crucible to tilt. It's not only hot work, it's back-breaking, with very controlled movements. I'm not sure how heavy that is, but it sure looks like a workout.

I actually saw two pours that day, so although I'm presenting the photos (only a few. only the horizontal ones. sheesh.) in an appropriate chronological order, they're a combination of both pours, with different folks having different turns at the various tasks.  

Once the molds are filled, any remaining molten metal is poured into ingot molds, to be reused another time.

After it's cooled a bit, the works are lifted out and the waste molds removed. They're still really hot, untouchable even with gloves, but you can use tools at this point, to start chipping the mold away.

We got our first look at the cast works, but they really don't look correct until the excess metal has been cut off, and -- if it's a complex piece -- the separately molded parts then welded together.

I'll try to fix the photo issue and update this posting next weekend, so check back in awhile. Much better pictures await.....

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Joshua Tree

Artist in residence programs at national park tend to attract photographers and painters; much more so than sculptors. Sculpture in the field is difficult...though of course not impossible, or I wouldn't be doing it!

Photographers perhaps have an easier time than painters, but both have their share of physical challenges. I've been wanting to post the work of another 2012 NPS artist in residence, photographer Daniel Kukla, since I first saw it. Daniel was an AIR at Joshua Tree this year. He not only hauled around his photography equipment while he hiked, but also a painter's easel and a large mirror.

Daniel and I share two other connections besides being NPS artists: his background is also in the natural sciences, and his earlier work included two studies of zoo environments, Captive Landscapes, and Lamina. I can't tell by his photos whether any of those works were from the zoos where I worked, but I find them fascinating. You can see all of Daniel's work at his website here.  

His beautiful series from Joshua Tree is called Edge Effect:

Daniel's statement about Edge Effect: "Using a single visual plane, this series of images unifies the play of temporal phenomena, contrasts of color and texture, and natural interactions of the environment itself."
If you're interested in applying to the the Joshua Tree artist in residence program, that link is here.

Halfway there....

This morning I wrote a long post, with TONS of pictures....and then blogger was uncooperative. After a couple of hours struggling with it, I can write and publish again, but am still unable to include pictures. Hope to resolve this before I leave San Diego...

Yes, I'm wrapping up my time here. Less than a week, then home to my studio for the remainder of the residency, where I expect a marathon of sculpture, firing, sleep-deprivation, and assembly. Squeezed between election work, and TAing a 3-d design class. Somewhere in there, there's a holiday. Maybe I can talk someone else into cooking for the family. Or we could all jump on that new trend of eating out at a restaurant on Thanksgiving.

My total residency is about 77 days, if I count from when I first arrived to just before the exhibition opens. That's not including packing/driving days, or exhibit installation days. Only "working days". Which means that today is exactly halfway through the residency. But nowhere near halfway to being ready! I still have a long way to go. From this point on, it's all finishing and refining projects; alas the inspiration part is temporarily over. I have to put blinders on now, to better focus on finishing everything I've started. This means these last few days here I won't be at the park very often. I'm grinding, washing, patinating, painting, coating, cleaning, cutting, and generally hustling like crazy.

After the exhibition opens, I'll post pictures, information, and titles for all the pieces, but here's a little preview of what to expect:

1) Six mixed-media paintings about the rocky intertidal. Each 8 inches square, on cradled panel.

2) A large pedestal-top mixed-media sculpture about human interaction with the intertidal ecology.

3) One sculpture that's large enough it doesn't need a pedestal, about marine debris. Title: Pickle.

4) Very large ceramic and metal sculpture featuring the landscape and vegetation of Cabrillo. Again, large enough not to need a pedestal; will sit on the floor.

5) A large piece on the kelp forest ecology that will include ceramic sculptures of animals as well as metal. I don't want to say a lot about this, but there will be otters at Cabrillo again.

6) Two ceramic and metal egret/heron sculptures...87) A cormorant sculpture...8) Two pelican sculptures...9) Two other shorebird sculptures.

10) Several ceramic sculptures of raptors.

11) A couple of "vessel" sculptures, fairly big, featuring the geology of Cabrillo.

12) Several small ceramic studies and models.

13) Four mixed-media panels as one artwork, again relating to marine debris.

14) An interactive sound sculpture.

15) A wood sculpture. I'm hoping this can be installed outdoors.

and finally 16) a very large, outdoor sculpture of found materials.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


For the next few days I won't be at the park, because I'll be doing these presentations at SDSU:

The poster images are all from a series I did last year called The Mechanic Dreamed He Was a Tea Master. Ceramic stoneware vessels mixed with salvaged metals. This series will be featured in a book that will be published next year: Wood-Fired Ceramics: 100 Contemporary Artists

All of the pieces on the poster were wood-fired in a Japanese style kiln for eight days, unglazed. So those colors and textures are only from the wood ash and gases; a typical appearance from wood-fueled kilns, and one that can't really be replicated in gas or electric kilns.

Big thank you to Richard Burkett, SDSU ceramics professor, for putting together this poster. 

Interested in more about wood-fired ceramics? Here's a great book, and it happens to highlight the very kiln where I fired these works. Complete with kiln plans, in case you want to build your own. 

Big Band Theory

Swing music was big, big, big during WWII.

San Diego is a military town: Army, Navy (air and sea defenses, both), Marines, and Coast Guard have long operated here. Historic Fort Rosecrans on Point Loma was an Army installation, dating from the turn of the 20th century, for the country's coastal and harbor defense. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Fort Rosecrans became an integral part of the early war effort. Signalmen lived in the old lighthouse, searchlights were installed on what's now NPS land, and huge gun batteries built.

Every year on Pearl Harbor Day, the National Park Service holds commemorative events at Cabrillo, with reenactors and authentic costumes. This December they're doing it again, and also holding a big dance, with a live swing band. A real dress-up event and hot music.

Everyone recognizes swing music when they hear it, right? Unmistakable. And it's never been called anything else but swing. Whether it's played by a big band in ballroom, or played by a small group or trio in a club or auditorium, swing is a universal name for that style of music.

But the names of the dances...that's a whole different story. These days if someone asks you if you swing dance, and you say yes, it often turns out their idea of a swing dance is not the same as yours.

When swing music first hit the ballrooms shortly before WWII, what most people danced to it was a foxtrot. Foxtrot is a 6-count dance, a slow slow quick quick pattern, very easy. Very versatile, too. For decades it was the first dance almost anyone learned, and many never learned any other. You could certainly attend a WWII-style or big band dance, dance only variations of the foxtrot at different speeds, and be historically accurate. And have fun, too: foxtrot isn't always sedate.

Lindy was actually a style of dancing that had emerged more than a decade before swing music, in jazz clubs; the name honoring Charles Lindbergh. Instead of the dancers being close together, they were "open", farther apart. Dancing at almost arms length, and they often let go of each other; you wouldn't do this in foxtrot, no matter how wild your foxtrot is.

Lindy evolved several different forms, one of them known specifically as lindy hop. Back then, everybody danced, and the lindy hop was increasingly popular with younger dancers -- the ages of the vast majority of soldiers, sailors, and airmen in whose honor many dances were held. Morale boosters, fundraisers, standard dinner accompaniment...dances (and movies) were THE entertainment of wartime. And swing was THE music to dance to.

In the years before Pearl Harbor, many people had began to call all those fast, jazzy dances to swing music jitterbugging. Credit goes to Cab Calloway for coining it. The new name became more used after Lindbergh moved to Europe, fell from grace, and anything "lindy" did too. Just like anything else with German or Japanese origins was renamed so Americans could go on enjoying it and still feel patriotic.

Post-rock 'n roll, swing died as a popular music form; the dances died with it. Forty years later a revival of jitterbugging and swing dancing revived the lindy name. And here is where it gets confusing.

An explanation:

Lindy hop also revived as a very specific dance. For decades the king of the lindy hop revival was Frankie Manning. His story is a pretty interesting read, even on wikipedia, and you can find a lot of Frankie Manning videos on youtube. Lindy hop style of swing dancing incorporates lots of lifts and requires athleticism and practice. A lot of practice.

West coast swing is a name and style that grew out of the swing dance revival. (Which was concentrated initially in California.) Like lindy hop, it's danced to 4/4 music (110-130 beats per minute), it's often in an 8-count pattern....but, just to confuse things, it can also be danced in a 6 or 10 count pattern. Because of the linear footwork pattern, it can look like the dancers are constantly trading places in a rectangular slot. Add a ton of rapid turns and tricks, and the linear appearance is lost, but it's still the same dance. Also like lindy hop, west coast swing is hard to learn and takes practice, and there are dozens of different regional styles of it; knowing one style doesn't mean you'll be able to dance smoothly with a partner who knows a different regional style.

East coast swing was dubbed that even more recently, and only to distinguish it from west coast swing. But it did not originate on the east coast, and is just as old a swing dance as the 8-count pattern lindy. Sometimes known as triple step, or boogie-woogie, or even called the original jitterbug, it's the easiest of the swing dances to learn. A 6-count pattern, this is the dance that was the sock hop swing in the 50s. It's danced to 3/4 time music, usually around 140-175 beats per minute. You can squeeze in lots of fast turns, or dance it gently and quietly. If you already know how to two-step (either a county two-step, or a foxtrot), this is the dance for you. The rhythm is exactly the same as a two-step or foxtrot: quick quick slow slow, and many of the turns are the same; it's just stylized differently.

And then there's Balboa. A closed lindy style that focuses on footwork, no lifts, and hardly any turns, Balboa occupies the smallest area on the dance floor, can either travel or stay in one place, and can be danced to all kinds of swing music. It's an 8 count pattern.

I hear there's going to be a lesson at the beginning of the Liberty Dance, but I don't know which style it'll be. And none of these are dances you can learn well in fifteen minutes. Except the foxtrot. Possibly east coast swing, if you're already a dancer. Want swing dance lessons in San Diego ahead of time? There's a HUGE swing dance community here, lots of lesson choices, lots of venues, swing and rockabilly bands (rockabilly music is great for practicing all kinds of swing dancing), and plenty of dances, clubs, and opportunities to practice. Here. Or here. Prefer to learn at home? Here's a video lesson of east coast swing. Very basic, and the sound is pretty bad, but it's an outstanding video for showing the basic steps and turns of this swing dance version.

And what are you going to wear to the Liberty Dance? Period attire? I hope so. One of the best online resources I've found about 30-40s vintage style are the LisaFremont pages: a website, blog, and a youtube channel. (Lisa Fremont was the name of the Grace Kelly character in Rear Window; but Ashley is the name of the girl who operates the LisaFremont pages.) Ashley is the queen of 1940s hairstyling! Dozens of videos on her youtube page showing to style all kinds of hair, particularly for the 1940s. And she's not even a hairstylist, so it's very DIY and common sense. Her website also has lots of links for retro costuming and products, too.

I can't even begin to think about any kind of costume until I finish all my artworks for the exhibition...but I'm gonna start brushing up on my swing dancing right away! 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Silver Spoon

I love grounding an event I'm examining by also looking at its context, seeing what surrounds it; if it's an historical event, what else was going on in the world at the same time?

The day that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo arrives at San Diego bay, September 28, 1542, Spain is the most powerful empire in existence. Charles I is king. Having inherited The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Artois and Burgundy on the death of his father Philip I -- who was no slouch at expanding the empire himself -- Charles must have been born with a gigantic silver spoon in his mouth. A ladle, perhaps. Not big enough, though. Shall we upgrade? Say, to a silver bowl, one the size of the Pacific? 

When his maternal grandfather Ferdinand II dies, Charles inherits Aragon, Navarre, Granada, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, Spanish America, and Castile. Okay, technically, he shares this monarchy with his mother, Joanna the Mad. (Odd nicknames were all the rage for monarchs at one time. Charles's father was Philip the Handsome. What a legacy. The handsome and the mad. As you can imagine, she doesn't get much credit.)

It's like the greatest prize show in history, because: wait! There's more! He is also king of Germany and Austria, a monarchy he inherits from his other grandfather, Maximilian I. And since the 10th century, the German king has automatically been the Roman Emperor as well. So...Charles I of Spain is also Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. (Keep in mind that Europe in this time bears little resemblance to the divisions of countries we map now.) 

No other monarch in European history wields so much power. The time period will come to be known as Spain's Golden Age. A halcyon time of...ahem, economic stimulation and cultural explosion, which is what allows a rather ordinary army officer such as Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (he'd served as captain of crossbowsman under conquistador Hernan Cortes) to elevate himself and end up leading a 3-ship expedition to explore the pacific coast north of Mexico.

It's also a period of incredible religious intolerance against both Jews and Muslims. Struggles back and forth between and amongst these three for expansion and political control are ancient, and still bubble furiously during Spain's Golden Age..which if defined in comparison to modern ages, isn't so golden. The Roman, Portuguese, and Spanish Inquisitions are all going on. Ignatius Loyola is about to found the Society of Jesus -- the Jesuits -- another strategy, this one intellectual, to counter rising protestantism. The Reformation has happened, Charles indirectly having prevented Luther's execution, and the Counter-Reformation is in full swing, permeating art and culture across Europe. 

The Renaissance is only recently dead, killed by the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Michelangelo, now an old man, has adapted his career to the changes wrought by the church, and is painting the fresco Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel; shortly he'll be selected to design the basilica of St. Peter. Art all over Europe is edging toward Mannerism; Baroque is just around the corner. 

Across the oceans, the Ming Dynasty is in power and has recently completed building the Forbidden City.  In Japan, Zen Buddhism (long introduced before) is suddenly taking strong root, and Portuguese trade in Asia is about to take off.

Also at the same time that Cabrillo is landing at Point Loma, Henry VIII is king of England. Henry is about to marry his sixth and last wife. The relationship between Henry and Charles, based on each of their troubles with various popes, is the stuff of soap operas. The pope had previously formed an alliance with Henry, the Venetians, the Florentines, and the Milanese to resist imperial domination of Italy. In the ensuing war, Charles sacked Rome and imprisoned the pope, preventing him from annulling Henry's marriage to Charles's aunt, Catherine of Aragon. With a new pope in place, Charles and Henry have allied against France; a war which will bankrupt England. For most of Charles's reign, he will continue to wage war with France.  

Charles has already conquered the Inca Empire and the Atzec Empire, and Francisco de Orellana is on an expedition to explore a river in South America, conquer any native settlements he finds, and claim that land for Spain as well. Stories of his encounters with Icamiaba natives along the river will later result in the name "Amazon", after the mythological women warriors. He also discovers the mouth of the Amazon and opens the river to further navigation, including the expansion of colonization and religious settlements by Portugal and Spain. 

Spain's interest in what will later become California is less immediate. After Cabrillo's exploration, Spain will not attempt to colonize the newly claimed lands for another two centuries.

The world's a rapidly changing place that September day in 1542.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Dangerous Animals

I've been longing to walk the bayside trail late in the day, and Saturday that's what I did, setting off just after the park closed, saying goodnight to the rangers passing me as they left for the day. That trail is rich with lichens, and on previous hikes I'd done some lichen color-matching for artworks I'm planning, but always in flat mid-morning light; I knew they'd be more vibrant in late afternoon, that the whole trail would look different.

You should never hike alone. That's a tip I remembered as I turned down the slope. The trail
did look different. Shadowy, dim; with the sun already on the west side of the peninsula, it was positively crepuscular. And narrower, the shrubs pressing in, the cliffs looming. And suddenly I also remembered a dinner party the weekend before.

I've had to turn down many dinner invitations (people have been incredibly kind and generous), only because even putting in full days, I'm so short on time for art-making that it's how I spend my evenings, too. An evening out means work from that day still not finished. But last weekend my brother-in-law and his wife came to San Diego. We went to dinner, along with several other folks who were in town with them for a police chiefs conference.

No, my relatives aren't police officers. They're actually both rocket scientists. Really. I won't go into how anyone in rocket science got involved in police science. Or why the number two ranked boxer in the world was also in our dinner party, or why it included the woman who sat across from me -- who'd survived a mountain lion mauling while hiking in Los Angeles. Few people live through an attack by a large carnivore; if you're alone you're almost certainly going to die. She survived because she'd been hiking with another person, the friend who was sitting next to her at dinner.

Our oldest son survived a dog mauling only because he wasn't alone. Also because a few months before, he'd had animal attack training in scouts, and practiced protecting his face and belly: rolling in a ball, making fists and clenching them over his ears. He was nine. It was a Doberman Pinscher, a friend's dog. It happened in our living room. Nearly half of his scalp is a network of scars: that's the amount of damage done in
seconds, the time it took us to pull and kick the dog off him. 

If I hadn't known about her lion mauling, I couldn't have guessed it. Scars, yes, but she looked good. Several reconstructive surgeries and the passage of time. Rolling in a ball won't protect you in a mountain lion attack. I've heard people claim confidence they'd be able to fight off a mountain lion. Know-how and strength and testosterone, and possibly carrying a weapon. I say
not likely, buster. They're pros. Stronger than you can possibly imagine, they use silent stealth to their advantage, and kill mammals your size for a living. Literally.

There aren't mountain lions in Point Loma. There haven't been mountain lions in Point Loma for generations. There's only archeological evidence to indicate they were
ever there. This I know, in my rational heart. But I have a creative imagination. And exercise, like hiking or walking, is excellent for stimulating creativity. Hiking a narrow path carved in the vegetation, with sandstone ledges and cliffs on one side -- which provide the PERFECT cover for any concealed lion about to pounce on you -- sets your imagination free. Every shadow drives a wedge that opens the possibility of an animal hiding there, every attempt my rational brain made at reassurance (cripes, there's not enough prey here to support any mountain lion!) was countered by creativity (if there were a mountain lion, it would be very hungry). By the time I got to the bottom of the trail, logic was losing a ridiculous argument. Lichens? Who cares about lichens! Get off this trail.

I'm not afraid of most animals. I've restrained fully awake alligators and sharks, lain on top of anesthetized lions, tigers, and bears. I've been chased by an angry zebra stallion, tussled with other various potentially lethal animals, been bitten by a snake, footed by a hawk, and attacked by a small cat -- an injury that needed two months of treatment. I have what I'd call a healthy respect for all animals, for the potential of situations. When I was a zookeeper, only the big cats gave me the heebie jeebies. Going into the back areas of the big cat enclosures was deeply unnerving. To a degree that still raises my heart rate now. No other zoo animals are so obvious about their intent to kill you; facing groups of them all focused on you, even behind bars, is facing your own mortality.

A common question from zoo visitors: "What's the most dangerous animal here to work with?" With the possible exception of the petting barn, they're all dangerous. My charges included venomous snakes; some on the aquarium crew handled sharks, one crew handled sea lions -- animals with the highest microbial hazard, should you be bitten, than any other animal. The hoofstock crew had to contend with zebra stallions and bull water buffalo, the carnivore crew had bears and wolves, another crew had rhinos and elephants (elephants are responsible for more keeper deaths than any other captive animal), the primate crew had the great apes, the cat crew...well, pretty much every one of their charges was dangerous, and historically more keepers are maimed by cats than by any other zoo animal. But even the bird crew faced lethal potential. My first day as a keeper, an animal escaped. Every keeper crew sent responders to the alert; mine sent me. It was just a small crane, but it had escaped straight into the ostrich herd paddock. They didn't care about the crane being in their enclosure, but they sure didn't want us there, and just before we entered the paddock, one of the bird keepers told me exactly how an ostrich would kill me.

Ostrich can be tamed. So can zebras, and for that matter occasionally there's been success taming some of the great apes. But many zoos make it a practice to keep the animals as wild as possible. This includes limiting physical contact and replicating many of the pressures of their natural environment. Urges regarding territory, hunting and food protection, mating and social behaviors aren't deliberately suppressed, as in taming; add to those the unavoidable pressures of reduced territory size and mating choices in captivity, and urges are magnified. Given the opportunity, OF COURSE animals are going to attack human interlopers. So keepers tend to be fit, young, and cautious. But not afraid.

The most dangerous animal at Cabrillo is the pacific rattlesnake, not commonly encountered. Rattlesnakes don't frighten me. They're easily avoided, they prefer to avoid people, they have plenty of retreat space, and even the
extremely slim chance of being bitten isn't likely to be life-threatening: you're in an urban area; anti-venin is a short drive away. And, I've been bitten by a snake before (not a rattler) and that familiarity dulls worry. If I had any worry about snakes, which I didn't. All I was worrying about was an imaginary mountain lion.

You know how sometimes a little seed of something plants itself in your head, a flash of a fragment of an idea that isn't even articulated...and you can't undo it? You want to shake it off, but can't.

Here's what a good artist does with those little growths, those newborn creative tumors: turns them into art. Like a purging, a closure. Sometimes it makes the best art, that therapeutic kind. I'll definitely be using this strategy. But just so you know -- I won't be displaying any mountain lions in my residency exhibition.
Because there aren't any mountain lions at Cabrillo.

Saturday, October 6, 2012


When I started this residency in early September, twelve months earlier to the day, I had come home in a wheelchair, after a freak accident in Dallas. What was supposed to be a two week art-centric vacation, which turned disastrous on the second day. After a couple of months on crutches I was able to switch to a cane, and by Christmas was weaning myself off that. (It was my hip. That's what I told people. Because I didn't want to say that it was my ass, even though it was; people get the wrong idea. "Hip" isn't really accurate, "leg" doesn't tell the whole story; "pelvis" is only partly accurate. "Left buttock and upper posterior thigh at the pelvis" is too unwieldy.) Physical therapy has been a constant: laser therapy, ultrasound, balancing exercises, and general torture. No, not really; those PT folks are all fantastic. It's really been a godsend.

But I'm missing physical therapy to be here. So I'm substituting made-up exercises at Cabrillo, and being tough on myself. Pushing a loaded cart up the hill to the whale overlook, for example. Mimics something I'd be doing at PT right now. Practicing balancing by walking on uneven, unpaved trails is good too.

Back in February, Kathryn Law, the first AIR at Cabrillo, was just finishing up her residency when I came to visit her. After we talked I drove down to walk the coastside trail. I'd only gone about 10 yards down the trail when I realized with spreading dismay that I wouldn't be able to do it. Not even with the collapsible cane I still kept in the car, just in case. Because of the geology that's particular to Cabrillo, much of the loose dirt underfoot is made up of  tiny pisolites, round particles you can see if you look closely. And I'd developed a habit of examining my footing closely. Ball-bearing-like stuff, very intimidating. Especially on slopes. 

By the time I interviewed for the residency in July, I'd had more therapy, my balance was improved, and I'd just come off a round of prednisone. The pred wasn't for my ass, but for complications from a couple of months with whooping cough, a sinus infection, then pneumonia and complications. A side effect was that it made my torn leg and butt muscles seem to work almost like new. I was feeling mighty good. Ranger Tavio and I hustled up the hill to the whale overlook while we talked, and I didn't have a bit of trouble.

Then the prednisone wore off.  My first week at Cabrillo, I tried the bayside trail...shorter and easier than the coastside trail. (Cabrillo occupies the end of a  pennisula; one side faces San Diego Bay, the other side is part of the California coastline.) And I couldn't get even halfway down the trail. It took four attempts that week before I could finish it, my butt and thigh stinging like mad the whole time. 

It's gotten better and better with this Cabrillo-therapy. Hurts less, functions more. So yesterday I wondered if I could manage the coastside trail. Part steep stairs and part hilly dirt paths, it winds up and down along the rocky cliffs.

Slow and careful, I did it. All the way down, and all the way back. 

Mostly I kept my eyes on the path, knowing I was missing a lot of birds and pretty views, but keeping my footing and my head down. I thought a lot about Dallas while I walked. That awful day, the Nasher Museum which I missed seeing; and Dallas artist Michelle Mikesell; and La Reunion which I did see, and was lovely.

I might be ready to go back to Dallas. Definitely ready to hike some more. 

Friday, October 5, 2012


The other day a park visitor from Germany who'd just been reading in his guidebook about sea otters asked me "What is 'sea urchin'?" and after I failed at describing it through the language barrier, we walked across the whale overlook to where purple sea urchins are pictured on one of the columns. Immediate recognition - "Ahhh!" - was followed by a lively conversation in two languages about etymology. Thank goodness for iPhone translation apps.

All over the rest of the world, these are apparently known as sea hedgehogs. Totally makes sense. Unless you're from North America, where there are no native hedgehogs. Or England, which is where the 16th-century slang term "urchin" was coined, referring first to hedgehogs themselves, and then to people with physical deformities that caused rounding of the spine, then generalized to encompass anyone with physical deformities, and then eventually street people; anyone who, in that time period, was most likely to be a beggar. After awhile it was applied more to street children and less to the disabled...and the term traveled to North America that way.

So: purple sea urchin = purple sea hedgehog = Strongylocentrotus purpuratus

Otters aren't the only ones who eat urchins. We do too. Sushi has been so assimilated into the American diet that it's no longer uncommon. And uni is a standard offering at most sushi restaurants. Uni is the roe of red sea urchins (S. franciscanus) -- the eggs. Sea otters eat all varieties of urchins, but we prefer red urchins; their roe is more popular and considered high quality than the roes from purple urchins. Red urchins are harvested off the coast of California, in the deeper waters around kelp forests; the same places sea otters feed.

I could totally go off on so many tangents here: neoteny, our preference for "saving" species we find cute (otters, not urchins), competition for resources, the balances of conservation management, etc., but I'll resist. All things to reflect on, the next time you eat uni. If you're a fan of uni.

You can read more about sea hedgehogs and sea otters here.

Monday, October 1, 2012


A front blew in this morning, and by noon you couldn't see a thing at Cabrillo. Unlike other foggy times, it stayed blowy, and the blowier it got, the denser the fog got. Visitors struggled to keep their clothes on. After awhile even I couldn't take the winds another minute, and left early.

Needless to say, there was no view. Normally, I take snapshots as I'm pushing my cart around, gathering differing viewpoints and juggling ideas for composition. And I cheat: I always carry a ViewCatcher, this little photography tool. It's particularly helpful someplace like Cabrillo, where there's such a feast of visuals to gorge on. A ViewCatcher makes me focus. Like Adderall for the eyes.

Although practicing composing with a tool like this helps develop skills for 3-d work, too, most of the information out there about viewpoints in composition refers to 2-d work. It translates just fine to 3-d. Here's an excellent posting on a photographer's blog about viewpoints and composition...much more thorough than I could write. Or would want to write.

Specific to painting, my friend Terry Miura also has a great post here about differing POVs.

That Thing I Do

"Artist in Residence? What's that?"is something Cabrillo visitors ask all the time. Friends tend to say "A residency! How awesome that for awhile you get to spend all your time making art!" This residency IS awesome, but not in the way you might think; not that way.

The reality of making art for a profession is that only a percentage of your working time is spent making art. Even in my home studio, I spend just about a third of my time actually sculpting or painting, a percentage which encompasses all the creative stages, including parts you might not think of as "making": design and planning (both mental and on paper), the less visible construction aspects of art-making, finish work, and photographing and documenting the work. Tedious chores like reconstituting clay, making supports and molds, and assembling cradled panels, armatures, stretchers, and frames eat up a chunk of the art-making third, too. So do grinding, sandblasting, setting up for spraying, glazing, loading or unloading a well as the myriad problem-solving adjustments that are normal bumps in the flow of creativity.

What is NOT art-making? Grunt work that keeps the art-making process lubricated: studio and equipment cleaning, repairs, general physical maintenance, shopping and transportation of supplies, various organizational tasks. Chalk up another third here. Commercially successful artists have assistants who handle this portion, so they can focus more on creation. (Very successful artists even have assistants who are artists in their own right, subcontractors really, who create artworks for them. Dale Chihuly and Damien Hirst come immediately to mind.)

The final third is needed to attend to marketing, communications, paperwork, and the business-keeping end of things. If you're an artists who can afford to employ secretaries, accountants, publicists, business managers...awesome. The rest of us learn to do these things ourselves.

There's variation in all these proportions, of course. On a good run, I'll choose to spend an entire week doing nothing but making, and let the other things slide. Or, conversely, marketing or grunt work sometimes demand enough time that a week passes without even an hour devoted to creativity. 

Art residencies should in theory increase your art-making time; that is their point. With good planning, you can suspend your ordinary business tasks during a residency. And in some instances there's residency staff who maintain and organize the studio provided to you, who help you out. Ideally, a residency intends to expand that one-third allotment of creative time - substantially.

To this end, most residencies provide you with studio space. It could be bare-bones, or well-furnished, or in between. Some give you an equipment and supplies allowance so you can get your own things to the residency. Many (including most NPS residencies) also give you housing, which is typically on the same site as the studio...a real time-saver. Some provide your meals: the food and the prep, cooking, and cleaning up after! More time saved.

And then there are a few truly wonderful, prestigious and very competitive residencies that provide studio, housing, your meals, AND pay you a stipend.

Others require you to pay them for the privilege of the residency (I don't think any artist really likes these. I don't even see how they get to call themselves residencies.) But the vast majority are cost-neutral: you neither pay for the residency, nor receive pay. All National Park Service residencies are. (But even within this category where no cash changes hands, there's tremendous variation in terms of the benefits provided.)

The facts of my residency at Cabrillo are that it's unfunded, and provides no studio, no housing, no meals. I saved up money to be able to do this residency, just as I'd save for a vacation. I prepared a budget for myself. Fuel is by far my biggest expense, a whopping item on my budget. By the time I pick up my work after the exhibition, I will have made five separate round-trip drives of 1,000 miles each from my home city to San Diego, plus one round-trip airplane flight (short notice; no discount for early booking) for the final interview; plus roughly $50 in gas each week for the 7 weeks I'm here, just to commute between the park and where I'm staying in San Diego.

That is a lot of gasoline.

That's also a substantial amount of time that's not being spent making art. Alas. It takes an hour and a half just to drive back and forth from where I'm staying to the park. And although there's no charge where I'm staying (I'm essentially housesitting), I have chores instead, as a courtesy to the homeowner. Because I had to bring my dog with me, there's also time spent on pet care. Because I'm conserving funds by not eating out, I spend more time on grocery shopping and preparing meals. The place I'm staying doesn't have a dishwasher, so I also spend an old-fashioned housewives amount of time on meal preparation and cleanup. Or, I would if I washed the dishes regularly. Which I don't. Because when I'm at the house, I'm still working mostly on art. The dishes can wait.

And I'm writing this blog. And spending time preparing for 3 different outreach programs I'll be doing.Whew. If I could figure out a way to sleep during the commute, I'd be set.

There's no studio at Cabrillo, so I work off a rolling cart when I'm at the park, and I've set up a makeshift little studio where I'm staying. Actually, 2 makeshift "studio" spaces: one in the kitchen just for painting...

and one in the garage for sculpture: a workbench and a table, about 20 square feet of space.

Here's my working space at the park. It's very mobile, in paved areas. Often I take it to the whale overlook because there's a shade canopy. In the afternoon, I roll it back to the NPS administrative offices, transfer the damp sculptures to my car, finish the work later in the "studio" where I'm staying, and the next day bring a fresh bag of clay to the park.

Wednesday, and most Mondays, I've been at the whale overlook with the cart. A couple of times I've taken it to the lighthouse too. When I'm working at one of the other, unshaded overlooks in the park -- the ones you can drive to (the cove overlook, coast overlook, the first view overlook, and tidepool overlook) -- I work out of the trunk of my car.

So by necessity I work small. Paintings are just 8 inches square; sculptures are goblet to pitcher-sized, mostly maquettes or studies. At the end of October I'll go home for a month, take one or two of the best studies, and make larger sculptures of them. At the end of November I'll bring everything back (the studies, too) and install the exhibition for the December 1st opening.

So, you might ask, what exactly am I getting out of this unfunded, no-housing, no-studio residency? Aside from the freedom to break away from my ordinary studio routines? To spark new ideas? Aside from the rare opportunity to make sculpture en plein air? An abundance of inspiration, foremost. A few hours at the tidepools, or the whale or coast overlooks, or the bayside trail, or on the point watching the harbor, or soaking up the military and cultural history, and your creative soul is flooded with beauty and inspiration. For me, there's sufficient inspiration at Cabrillo to last a lifetime of art-making. A bonus is the beautifully odd and serendipitous connections I've made with visitors (and park staff!). I've talked with visitors from all over the world, from all kinds of backgrounds, and again this is an invaluable source of creative inspiration.

It's turning out to be an amazing experience.