Friday, September 30, 2011

Creative expression in the shop and on the street

     The difficult part of traveling frequently is saying good-bye. Although when I stop moving I’ll probably see friends less often. It’s too easy to fall into a routine and not get off the freeway. My last three days in the Bay Area I was surrounded by creativity. 

Rooster Productions Scene Shop, Martinez, California
     My sister and I visited Rooster Productions, a theater scene shop where she used to paint sets. I hadn't been to the new facility since they moved five years ago. Talk about not making an effort. The owner, Adam
Pugielli, has this amazing ability to stay focused on solving problems under pressure without getting caught up in the drama, which is remarkable in theater and he built a patio for the staff to have barbeque's so it's a no wonder people love working for him. 
      Walking around the shop is like having a dream that should never end.  Aside from a pink house on a trailer in the parking lot they don’t give their secret away. Rooster Productions operates out of a nondescript, beige metal warehouse on the Martinez waterfront. If it were possible to combine Greek myths, the inner workings a gnome’s mind and the remains of several miniature golf courses all carefully stowed around the perimeter of a production wood shop you might have a clear mental image.

Dewalt, popular shop dog, find him on Facebook

Shaun in the prop shop

Adam Pugielli (Grand Poobah)
Rooster Productions
115 Tarantino
PO Box 1702 (mail)
Martinez CA 94553

the perfect mobile home

Italian Chalk Art Festival, Martinez 

     Mernie woke me up at 5am to help her set up her walls and canopy because she was worried there might be high winds, which tend to send her booth down the road like Dorothy's house before it's clamped together. I didn't complain because I know she's dedicated enough to hang on even if it took her to Oz. She did well all weekend, turns out the retro Italian crowd is her one of her niche markets. Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra impersonators warbled out weirdly memorable tunes and the Pizza Dough World Spinning Champion (like who knew there was one of those?) hurled dough in nearly death defying wonder. The chalk art was fun, but I would have liked to see what happened when it rained on Sunday, like nature decided to make the realistic drawings impressionistic for a few moments, then abstract and finally minimal. As the sun set people were dancing in the street, old school stuff, but fun to watch.  

Richmond Art Center 75 Year Retrospective
       Ramekon O'Arwisters has a piece in the show and I've missed seeing his work several years running. We worked together fifteen years ago at the San Francisco Airport Museum. I admire his courage, he presents serious ideas with disarming charm. He invites people to think, the pieces are often tactile, but a chair with it's feet in wine goblets is better not touched. When I first met him I didn't immediately realize what I had seen in his art and I appreciate the gentle way his message rearranged ideas ingrained in me from growing up in middle class America that are better off exorcised. Because he was invariably kind to me in a stressful job where others were abrupt, his compassionate humor often saved my day. It's easy to find images and videos of his work by entering his name in Google. 
   I could not bring myself to ask if I could take pictures of either the art or people. When I used to work in museums I struggled with the protocol of fame, trying to behave appropriately in my job on the bottom rung. Mugging for photos was totally uncool. I eventually jumped on a sailboat heading for New Zealand, but I always knew I was not suited for working in museums even after working my way from the loading dock to photographing artifacts. Art shows still intimidate me. 
   Every once in awhile I catch up with old friends, but I still don't ask if I can take pictures. Great to see you Ramekon (if you have a photo I can include please let me know). Cheri it was really good to run into you again. David, I want to hear more about your 22 day hike in the mountains. How did you pack enough food? Where did you start? Wish we'd had more time, it was fun to see you and Joy. 

Folsom Street Fair
    I should have at least worn black. My last day in San Francisco, before leaving for Molokai, I went to the Folsom Street Fair dressed like a misplaced tourist. Still, I was invited to bring a guy to his knees by pulling the chain around his neck, which is not an offer I get everyday so I gave it a try. He looked surprised and told me I did it better than a man. For a split second I actually felt powerful, but I have a sneaky suspicion it activated the same center of the brain as heroin, which is better left a road less traveled. Yanking guys chains isn't an addiction I want to recover from in the future. If everyone on Folsom Street marched to BART and exited in the suburbs, the right wing middle class would definitely need some recovery time. The bold, naked physicality of the event brought back fond memories of dances in the South Pacific. Except in San Francisco penis gourds are made of black leather and the rhythmic music blasted out of monster speakers instead of drums made from hollow logs. In the South Pacific men who prefer to live as women are not considered kinky or strange. Men dressed in women's clothes are everyday ordinary, not shunned or repressed. Although not much repression happens at the Folsom Street Fair, it is for fetishists what Burning Man is for hippies, although I bet a lot of people go to both.
     One generous sized woman wearing only a thong, heals and a tastefully small rubber pig nose stood in line at a professional photo studio booth, smiling. I admired her ability to celebrate her plus size with humor.  Four hundred thousand people jammed onto Folsom Street and spilled into the side streets and at times we were pressed into the crowd and could not move. I grabbed my friend so I wouldn't lose him and I'm still not sure how long I held the wrong guy's hand. His costume spoke to compassion though, he was dressed as a nun. I passed on the spanking booth, am still not sure why a lot of guys were wearing tails, marveled at the woman pretending to be a horse and did a serious double take when we passed people tazing each other for fun, jollies or both. Simply shocking! I've received more disparaging looks in Walnut Creek for my ratty old clothes than I did at the fetish festival for not dressing up or stripping down and I didn't feel nervous about asking to take pictures. I felt lucky to see things I'd never seen before, but isn't that why we travel? The Folsom Street Fair does that on steroids.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

One mighty fine art dealer

     I stopped by Suzy’s Locke’s last week to say good-bye since I’m leaving California for a while. Suzy is a fine art dealer and consultant who I’ve worked for and become friends with over the last twenty years. Time flies doesn’t it? Projects I’ve done with Suzy include a mural of cartoon fish for Yankee Pier in the United Terminal at SFO and paintings for Lark Creek Restaurant Group and Kaiser Hospitals. Suzy found me in ratty art studio complete with bullet holes in the sheet metal on the Oakland docks in 1990. She hung my first public art show at the Bank of America Plaza in downtown San Francisco. The most fun though was a small project we did for her husband’s birthday, in their guest bathroom. Marvin Cohen is a physicist, meaning he is able to discover universal phenomena and describe it in a language incomprehensible to most of us.   

     Suzy asked me to make stencils of his equations to paint on the walls of their bathroom. We sponged more paint on ourselves than the walls in an attempt to finish before the sun came up and had to double check that we didn’t put them on the wall backwards. Or I did, math is Greek to me. Marvin suggested that his publisher take a photo of him standing in the bathroom for the back cover of a book he was working on, but they declined. Thank you Suzy for some very good times, the commissions that have kept me going and the confidence you inspire.      Suzy Locke
     Marvin missed winning the Nobel Prize, but not by much. One of the rewards would have been a highly coveted parking space on the U.C. Berkeley campus where he works, his friends had a sign made for his driveway instead. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Picasso Exhibit, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

     The Picasso exhibit at the De Young Museum includes sketches, paintings, bronze sculptures and photographs of his life. Picasso balanced on the pinnacle of art fame and insight, lechery and freedom. Myths about his life have seeped into the unconscious of our culture, coloring the view of artists worldwide. In some of the photos he looks like an unabashed, egotistical blowhard and some of his work certainly has the feeling of a guy exploring sex addiction. Regardless, what struck me was just how damn much fun he was having in the process, which is admirable. He didn’t look like a guy who fretted about what other people think and he was quite willing to poke fun at himself. I’ve struggled to understand Picasso since high school, but in a show that included a larger picture of his life I finally quit trying. I enjoyed the humor, marveled at the angst and had one of those ah-ha moments in front of his self-portrait that showed his face twisted up like a deviant behind a naked woman. Drawing himself in a humorous light made him likeable beyond the obvious creepiness. The anatomically correct pregnant bronze goat with a bit of pipe in it's butt made just about everyone who wandered around its backside smile. For me that small detail was one of Picasso’s finer moments. I wish I’d seen it when I was college. I finally acquired a glimpse of understanding about Picasso through a goat's asshole. His entire big life comes through his artwork and he was the first to tattle on himself. Maybe some of our reverence is simply because he kept no secrets. 

     After the Picasso exhibit my sister and I walked through the Red Umbrellas art festival in front of the museum. They are a group she would like to join so she talked to several people involved. I stopped to read an artist’s statement that said he had discovered a new kind of freedom in his latest series, the same theme I found in the Picasso exhibit and a feeling I hope to gain. For many years I’ve produced commissions, designing paintings based on committee decisions.  I rarely find the time or possibly the courage to step out of the box and paint whatever comes to mind. I bought one of Kelvin Curry’s small pastel drawings to take with me to Hawaii, as a reminder of the feeling I left the park with last Sunday. Through art we can connect to the big picture.

     In order to complete the deal for the drawing we had to walk to the edge of the concourse. Selling artwork in Golden Gate Park falls under the same restrictions as soliciting money for causes or making a drug deal. While it felt slightly surreptitious to stroll away from the crowd to hand over the cash I’m glad my drug of choice these days is artwork, even if we don't have the freedom to buy and sell it in the park.  

        My sister and I stopped at the dahlia garden near the conservatory with the sun hovering just above the tree line. The late afternoon angle of light made the giant blooms glow like fireworks. A drum circle struck an unfamiliar rhythm nearby, as if the flowers wrote their own eclectic score. 
        I’ve saved enough to buy three months of time to create with no agenda, whether it is brave, stupid, audacious or inspired really doesn't matter.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Community Garden, Benicia, California

    A community garden sprang up in the middle of downtown Benicia. Still in it's first year it has attracted enough gardeners to cover half the empty gravel lot with individual plots and it's growing, in every way. A picnic table under a canopy provides a place to share the mysteries of achieving perfect tomatoes or pawn off too many zucchini. Although by the end of fall the growers might be throwing them at passing cars when they run out of recipes to disguise them. 

                                                 click to enlarge
    I don't have a before picture because it was just an ugly, fallow corner so it never occurred to me to take a picture. People rushing by stop in their tracks to gawk at the freakishly large pumpkin and marvel at the beds of vegetable bounty and gorgeous flowers. A community of gardeners transformed more than dirt and weeds into healthy produce, their efforts changed the character of the neighborhood as well. If nothing more, it makes people smile, like finding something precious you thought was lost. A few people got it going. Others jumped in, seeds and shovels in hand. I was skeptical at first because I'm about as interested in gardening as eating dirt so it was hard to believe enough people showed up to make installing the plumbing worthwhile, but I recently heard there is a waiting list for new plots and a work party organized to build them. 

    My sister lives next door to the the garden project. Her vegetable plants have trunks instead of stems, producing enough tomatoes to start a ketchup factory. She uses a variety of techniques, some rooted in science others closer to believing in fairies, but whatever she does works. Picking large pungent, viney smelling tomatoes, still warm from the sun is the best part of summer.

     When I lived on and island in the South Pacific I used to shove pineapple tops in the dirt outside my door. Not technically gardening as it simply involved bending over and leaving it, but after a few years I noticed a tiny pineapple sprouting out of one that had taken root. When I excitedly told my neighbor that I grew a pineapple she looked at me with wonder and disgust. Rolling her eyes she said, "That's the most egotistical thing I've ever heard, you don't grow it, they grow themselves." In the jungle that's true, plants voraciously take hold and grow untended, but turning barren ground into a bountiful garden and lively meeting place took the quiet effort of many people who were willing to baby and nurture plants and possibly even each other.
Well done gardeners of Benicia, it's beautiful.    


Saturday, September 3, 2011

Land of the Sasquatch

    On the return drive from visiting friends near Eureka last week I took the scenic route along the Avenue of the Giants.
    Roadside attractions nestled in the groves of giant redwoods along the highways of Northern California and Oregon are often Mom and Pop operations. I remember the drive-thru tree from forty five years ago and it's still there. It was fun as a kid, but I can't imagine anyone cutting a tunnel through one of the last old growth redwoods these days. Further north a fiberglass lumber jack and his enormous blue ox stare blankly at a parking lot filled with motor homes. The area hasn't changed much. Clearly people visiting the redwoods are still satisfied with cement dinosaurs and bizarre attractions like the Ship Ashore Museum. Completely absent along the Avenue of the Giants are fast food restaurants, which is a very good thing.      
   I parked on the side of the road and walked into the forest alone, experiencing vertigo when I looked up. Standing in a grove of live monoliths, far from the nearest beckoning chain saw bear outlet, I felt small and insignificant, but in a good way. I walked out of the woods with a better perspective of time and renewed energy to make the best of life. A small gift from a tree at least a thousand years old with a girth of forty feet. 

    A heavy mist softened the early morning light barely illuminating the pale green carpet of sorrel under foot. A distinct fragrance of dusky, dry bark and damp moss filled the air. I didn't feel alone because there is a lovely presence to giant trees, as if one might tap me on the shoulder at any moment and reveal the secrets of the universe. Or I might be a little daft. They could have wanted to me to run to the nearest gift shop for the latest Sasquatch key chain, reveling in their ability to inspire truckloads of silly souvenirs. 

   After sailing down the barren, rocky coast of Baja colossal trees seem purely impossible. Granted we've turned many of the Grandads into patio furniture, but we're very lucky that a few first growth stands have been preserved. If kitsch attractions have anything to do with preserving big trees, more power to them.