{ Category Archives: aesthetics }

Vernacular Scale

I realized on a recent trip to Virginia that what I still glean from experiencing the pre-industrial vernacular architecture of the Eastern Seaboard is a sense of appropriate scale. My definition of scale here incorporates relationships between people, between resources, and between the commerce, enterprise and production that connects them all.

Despite the obvious (and nefarious) social inequities comprising this sense of appropriate scale, is that it appears to be in balance with nature, self-sustaining, self-regulating, and thereby sustainable. Ironically, it is the very balance of relationships and resources that led eventually to a kind of prosperity, or surplus, that yielded conditions conducive to innovation, which became the undoing of said balance.

In many ways, I feel that the human psyche is still looking for the sense of scale exemplified by the basic tenets governing all pre-industrial vernacular architecture. This leads to misplaced nostalgia, or sentimentality, a romanticization of times past, and a cognitive dissonance with the present and future conditions. Given that this cycle appears to be a recurrent part of the human experience, I’ve tried through my work to develop an inner sense of scale that allows me to glean from the present and anticipate the future, using a deconstructed past as a template.

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Mostri di Roma

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Looking up the Tevere towards Islola Tiburina

Water flows through Rome more visibly than time. It is an almost magical presence here, an animating force that makes the Eternal City feel alive in the present. Water streams constantly from hundreds of street corner taps, cold and delicious. Some still flows over aqueducts from the Colli Albani, or from the Simbruini in the foothills of the Apinnines. The snaky Tevere quietly carves Rome’s western contour and is easily crossed on foot over ancient stone bridges many times in a day. Water is everywhere here, connecting the past with the mountains, the sky, the sea. The success of the Roman Empire begins with mastery over water. Water is the Standard.

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Jet-lagged, I wind my way through Rome’s cobbled lanes in a cool pre-dawn, drawn by chimes and gurgles to the piazzas, the centers of public life. I am here on an A1 Travel Grant to study the fantastical sea monsters depicted in many of Rome’s public fountains. I am preparing to make our Makkeweks sculpture for the City of Oakland, and am curious how sea monsters have been depicted in public places in times past, particularly by Bernini and Borromini. I learn quickly that navigating Rome by public fountain is a wonderful way to experience the entirety of the City in a short time. The fountains are evenly distributed throughout Central Rome, and they are almost always sited in major piazzas, which are often flanked by significant churches and other public buildings. The piazzas are also the locale for open air markets and the best (if most expensive) cafes, so provide the perfect respite. After a long traipse, I recharge with cappuccinos and paper cones of roasted chestnuts. Traveling on foot in a light rain in winter in the early morning is the best way to avoid the crowds.

I am as interested in a sculpture’s initial impression as I am in the technical details of how something is rendered. Or, I’m interested in how these things work in congruity, in how the initial impression, the story being told, is reinforced by the way the material is shaped and textured. My sculpture will not have anything like the narrative detail or expressive gesture of the baroque, but I still have a lot to learn from the masters. I’m paying particular attention to how light interacts with surfaces from varying distances and perspectives. I’m also curious about what constitutes the idea of ‘monster’, what aspects of their depiction transcend the time and what aspects define it. In particular, what does the monster tell us about a time period’s relationship with water, with the ocean, with the unknown.

Here is a gallery of some of the images from my traipse through Rome, with attention to sea monsters (please leave a comment if you’d like more info on any of these):

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Free Sign #4

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Free Sign #4, found near Two Rock, CA

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To learn more about my Free Sign Project, please click here and scroll down.

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Sea Monsters on my mind

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The depiction of sea monsters is as old as seafaring. Only the shape, size and imagined intention of the monster changes over time, generally in direct relation to what is being explored and whatever constitutes the boundaries of current knowledge. Sea monsters represent the unknown, simultaneously warding off and goading the curious-minded. Historically, sea monsters have been drawn on nautical charts to demarcate unknown waters; perhaps their origin is in some primordial fear of the unknown in any guise.

I think of sea monsters more as composites of observable, unexplained phenomena, drawing on encounters with charismatic mega-fauna of the sea and filtered through the compromised mental state of the ailing seafarer fighting scurvy, malnutrition and general ennui. Sea monsters invariably have traits of creatures that eventually find their way to scientific taxonomy, creatures that are simply unknown to science prior to their status as observable phenomena, as monsters of the sea. Whales, dolphins, seals and octopi all originated as monsters in the human imagination. It must have sometimes taken centuries of rare encounters to make for a complete picture. Even so, the fear persists, the sea monster persists in the imagination beyond reason, and there will always be an unknown.

I like to think of sea monsters as a kind of muse to scientific inquiry, or to inquiry in general, an idea that has guided my vision for the Makkaweks sculpture I’m preparing to carve, to be cast in bronze and permanently sited on the shore of Oakland’s Lake Merritt. I’ve been laying up laminations of large chunks of composite cork, which I will shape into the monster and detail with surface patterns evoking a plausible sea creature. As I block out the rough shape in cork, using my clay model as a template, I’ve been researching depictions of sea monsters from art history and popular culture.

I’m interested in sculpting a contemporary sea monster, an allegory of whatever is currently unknown, or considered inplausible. I’ve been researching ancient literature, classical and renaissance sculpture, natural history, Japanese sci-fi, and garden follies in Los Angeles for visual clues about patterns that define ‘sea monster’ before I begin carving. I’d love to hear from anyone who has sea monster references to add to the archive.

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I found these 2 sea monsters on the grounds of Huntinfton Library in LA. 

Click here to read more about the development of Makkeweks for the City of Oakland.

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Update from Swell Break: Deep Craft on the Edge

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Rodeo Beach, viewed from the trail from Headlands Center for the Arts

Located on a barren bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the Marin Headlands, the Headlands Center for the Arts (HCA) feels remote, like the edge of civilization, despite its close proximity to San Francisco. Founded in the early 1980’s, HCA occupies a series of decommissioned military buildings predating WW1, originally part of Fort Baker, with the bulk of activities clustered in two identical structures originally intended to house infantry.

One of the more compelling consequences of siting military facilities along remote coastline is that they ultimately serve to protect that stretch of coast from commercial development. Upon its eventual resusitation after closing as a military base in 1950, the Headlands has emerged as a major cultural and natural treasure, a beloved destination for surrounding urban communities seeking solace, recreation and inspiration. I designed my recent workshop at Headlands, Swell Break: Deep Craft on the Edge, to tap this desire for natural/cultural engagement by positing the potential for a former military base sited in close proximity to a major surf break to be repurposed as a research lab for the design and testing of surf craft tailored to a specific break.

The Swell Break project proved to be a huge success despite the inherent challenges of scope and time. Over the course of a Labor Day Weekend, in collaboration with my friend, sculptor/surfer Lawrence Labianca, we mentored 12 workshop participants in the design, prototyping and testing of a series of simple wooden bellyboards, designed to negotiate the break at Rodeo Beach. The project has been both a follow-up and distillation of my ongoing pursuit of collaborative, artisan-scale making informed by the unique characteristics of a bioregion, particularly when it engages boat-building, skate or surf culture.

Click here to see complete photo documentation by Hans Kwiotek.

Related projects include: Micro-Expedition, Deep Craft Atelier

Click here to read more about Swell Break: Deep Craft on the Edge.

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Research Topics du Jour

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spinnradl2well's inclinometer

 

One of the challenges and pleasures of developing site specific, public sculpture is following several threads of research simultaneously and trying to find unexpected connections that make sense. Here is a sampling of some topics we are researching as we design a series of kinetic sculptures for the Pendleton neighborhood of Cincinnati:

 

1. Polaris

2. Spinnradl

3. Ragtime

4. Radial Moire

5. Peg Leg Joe

6. Appalachian Hymns

 

 

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Dedication of the Colorado Judicial Center

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North Elevation of the new Ralph L Carr Colorado Justicial Center

I spent two days this past week participating in an elaborate dedication ceremony for the new Ralph L Carr Colorado Justicial Center in Denver. Wowhaus was awarded one of the highly competetive public art commissions for the new building, a modernist riff on classical temple architecture featuring a soaring, circular atrium capped with a transparent glass dome. The building was designed by Fentriss Architects, who are probably best know for their now iconic, tensile-tented Denver International Airport.

It wasn’t as easy as you’d think spotting the eight participating artists in an atrium chock full of attorneys, judges, state representatives, clerks, former governors (4) and all of their entourages. Colorado is very proud of its reputation as a renegade state and the majority of its legislative practitioners trend towards Maverick in both style and substance. For every ‘rep’ tie, blue blazer and pair of horn-rimmed glasses there was a goatee, wild mane and bolero. From the many conversations I had over the two days, I found the circuit judges from small rural towns to be the most colorful and candid. One gentleman regaled me with detailed questions about my art practice, then made the bold assertion that what artists and judges have in common is that we are both ‘truth seekers’ by nature.

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A boisterous crowd gathers in the atrium of the new Judicial Center.

I was inspired by the unexpectedly high-minded tenor of the occasion, having given little thought to the life of the building beyond the initial inception for our sculpture that is now knitted into the building’s functional and visual identity. I was equally surprised and delighted by how interested the principle speakers were in the design of the building and integrated artworks, how much they know about every nuance.

Granted, everyone was on their game; the keynote speaker was Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, predeeded by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Colorado Supreme Court Justice Michael Bender, but something about the combined speeches and subsequant conversations rose above mere good form and comportment. Something about the level of enthusiasm for the new building and the artworks it contained, a shared passion for the value of place, beauty and order, convinced me that they really, really meant what they were saying. They truly believed that the Rule of Law is the very pillar of civilization, a sacred if imperfect, hand crafted experiment subject to the vagaries of time, technology and temperment, and that the majesty of the Law, its transparency and logic, could be made manifest in the design and implementation of a building and its contents.

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A view of Tsuru, our cast bronze sculpture integrated into the building’s interior courtyard.

Mostly, the occasion gave me insight into the design-consciousness of the legal mindset, and made me proud to have contributed in some concrete way to the contextual backdrop in the ongoing pursuit of the Rule of Law, however obliquely. The occasion restored my faith in the persistance of narrative, especially in an age of the perpetual Now. I hadn’t realized the extent to which symbols, even physical places and guided experiences in the form of art and architecture can actually carry complex and meaningful narratives, let alone the role these narratives can play in everyday life. Perhaps as we lurch into the perpetual present tense required of us as we negotiate digitally-mediated technologies, media and commerce, we will begin to rely more on the substance and integrity of physical place to frame the narrative and remind us of our better selves in the process.

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To read more about the development of our Tsuru Project for the Ralph L Carr Colorado Judicial Center, click here and scroll down.

 

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