{ Category Archives: visceral inquiry }

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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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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Notes from the Bonfire

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Flotsam of the Day

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I love a beach tangle, lines yanked and rolled by the surf, twisted colors at the tideline.

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Nettoyez les Champs

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A bonfire on a chilly grey morning always reminds me of our time in West Africa. There was a common saying among village farmers, on doit nettoyer les champs, clear the fields, which pretty much always meant building a fire. Before the rainy season, entire fields would be burned to recondition the soil for next year’s crops of yam, millet, corn and sorghum. When crops were mature and needed tending, farmers would set out on foot at dawn from the mud huts of the village to collective fields ringing the compound, short-handled, hand-forged hoes hanging deftly from one shoulder.

Au debut, if faut nettoyer les champs. Before working the fields, the farmers would gather loose, dry debris to build a fire, harvesting a few ripe yams in the process. The fire would be built on top of the yams and the farmers would go off to rebuild earthen mounds, redig trenches for irrigation and harvest enough produce to carry back to the village. By mid-day the fire would be down to embers and the hot sun high in the sky. Charred yams would be raked from coals, their blackened crusts expertly removed with a few strokes of a razor sharp coup-coup, and the farmers would gather for a feast of roasted yams with spicy colico before an afternoon nap in the neem grove’s shade.

Our annual winter bonfires may be less prosaic, but they always give me a chance to relive our brief time in West Africa, where I was lucky enough to see the seasonal shift from harvest to rain au village. To contribute less of a carbon footprint, we typically chip or compost most of our green debris, but each year still yields a ‘burn pile’ of apple tree prunings, storm fallen branches and other less expected wood waste, and I always look forward to setting it all on fire, sans yams.

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Bull Kelp Harvest

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Each winter since we’ve lived on the Sonoma Coast and made a daily practice of walking the beaches, I become mildly obsessed with the bull kelp that washes ashore in great heaps after storms. I’ve tried weaving the kelp into seat blanks, drying it as an iodine-rich jerky, and brewing it for a savory stock. My experiments have not been utter failures, and the waste product makes for nutritious compost, but I have yet to find its ideal use.

This year, I harvested several large heads of the kelp, selecting the freshest and most well-formed. I’m considering casting these in bronze as a table leg for a new design commission, and have carefully cleaned and wrapped them for freezing until I’m ready to make the molds.

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