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Makkeweks, Ifukube, and the Return of the Ray

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I’ve flipped the creature and continue to rough out its topsides with my homemade saw

Carving is like controlled erosion. A shape emerges in response to the real and imagined forces that dictate how and where material is added and removed. My primary job as I sculpt the Makkeweks sea monster is to manage these forces, which, along with the sea monster itself, are largely my invention. My primary tools are various hand saws and abrasives, some of which I have designed and made specifically for carving and cutting compressed cork.

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Akira Ifukube, 1914-2006, composer of Godzilla soundtracks

Another essential tool is maintaining the appropriate state of mind to keep focus on the monster. I manage this two ways, one is cultural and the other natural. I have immersed myself in monster culture and listen to music composed by Akira Ifukube for the Godzilla movies between 1954-1975 while I carve. The son of a Shinto priest, Ifukube was originally trained in forestry and specialized in researching the elasticity of wood. His career in music followed exposure to radiation that left him physically incapable of the rigors of fieldwork. Somehow I can hear his experience with wood in his music. I feel a deep kinship with Ifukube, which I attribute to the love we must share for wood, music and monsters.

I also find inspiration in studying natural forms during our daily walks on the beach. It’s always thrilling to see pelicans dive, sea lions frolick in the surf, and the occasional breaching whale. I want the Makkeweks sculpture to convey the raw thrill of such encounters in the wild. The Makkeweks monster is a composite of native marine fauna, so I learn something new every day. I was recently extremely encouraged to hear of a bat ray sighting in Lake Merritt. I had anticipated this before the Lake was restored to a tidal estuary, and the possibility informed our conception of Makkeweks, whose name originates with an Ohlone sea monster myth.

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To learn more about the development of Wowhaus’ Makkeweks Project, click here.

 

 

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Makkeweks Progress

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The Makkeweks sea monster sculpture upside down, roughed out in stack-laminated cork

No matter the depth of scientific knowledge there will always be monsters. You don’t have to look very hard to find them. Politics, industry and information technology are a few obvious breeding grounds. I’ve been thinking a lot about monsters as I begin to carve my Makkeweks sea monster sculpture for the City of Oakland. Even the pile of new materials jamming the studio is a kind of monster. As I commence to carving the beast, I’m finding monsters to be a surprisingly apt metaphor for the age (as well as my mental state).

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Sketch showing the arrangement of laminations over the underlying, midsection form

The sculpture will be cast in bronze from a wax positive but I’m making the original out of solid cork. The material comes from the cork oak, Quercus suber, the word ‘cork’ being a corruption of the latin ‘quercus’. I’ve made stack laminations to rough out the shape of the sculpture from sheets of industrial cork from Portugal. The material cuts easily with a chain saw or cross cut handsaw, and carves beautifully with a wood rasp. The surface can be sanded very smooth, especially if skim coated with plaster. It can also be burned with irons to create detailed surface texture. I’ve begun to carve the underside/belly of the beast to put my tools and techniques to the test. The underside will not be very visible in the finished piece, so I’ll learn what works best before flipping the form to sculpt the top/back.

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I designed and made my own 26″ long rasp from expanded metal lath and 1 x 4’s

Unable to find a rasp long enough to make smooth contours over a large expanse, I designed and made my own. I discovered that expanded metal lath is sharp enough and has open enough voids to cut the cork aggressively. I bent a slight arc into a 26” length x 9” wide section of lath, bent the longwise edges to right angles at about 1.5” in from the ends and screwed the material around a 26” long 1 x 4, capped with a slightly narrower 1 x 4 for a grip. My invention works like a charm, and its weight makes for a steady swipe over the material for as long as my arms can bear it. The work is slow going but satisfying, a work out, and I am able to meditate on the monster as it takes shape.

I’m particularly satisfied with my choice of material. Sheets of industrial cork are expensive, but comparable to foams of comparable density. Unlike foam, the cork is non-toxic, and the scraps and shavings are biodegradable. Also, carving the material leaves crumbs about the size of vermiculite and there  is no air born particulate, so I do not need to wear a mask or other special protection.

To learn more about the development of Wowhaus’ Makkeweks Project, click here.

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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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Research in Rome

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Anna Falchi by the Trevi Fountain while shooting La Dolce Vita

I’m very excited for my trip to Rome tomorrow. I’ve never been, but have a dreamlike sense of the city from cinema and art history. There is so much to see, it’s dazzling. My well-traveled friends say just walk, get lost, lose an evening to Trastevere. I have a list of specific sculptures and buildings to see in Rome related to our Makkeweks Project, and another list for Milan, but I’m hoping to stumble upon my destinations by hazard. Time is tight, so we’ll see.

I have a meeting in Switzerland, in Sainte Croix, to touch base with Reuge, the music box manufacturer who are making components for our Spinnradl Project in Cincinnati. I’ll take a train from Milan and spend a day working with their engineers on the sound-producing components for our 14’ high kinetic sculptures. It should be interesting to arrive in Switzerland for a technical charette after a ramble through ancient Italy.

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Schematic rendering of our Spinnradl sculpture(s) for the City of Cincinnati.

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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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Arborigin

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Arborigin is a collaborative project that brings together artists, designers and artisans to produce fine products from a single elm tree salvaged from Chicago’s urban forest. We invite those interested to submit a proposal to use some of our inventory of cured lumber and hope to bring the finished products together for a pop up store in Chicago in 2014. In simple commerce we aim to incubate ideas for ongoing partnership.

Arborigin is akin to the farm-to-table movement in food. The project asks us to consider what kinds of products a single tree might yield when the means of production, distribution and sales are highly localized. What stories and values become embedded in everyday objects when we know exactly what they were made from and who made them? Arborigin asks us to think differently about trees, about things and how they are made and used, about the relationships that connect us to place. 

The Arborigin Team seeks proposals that model an approach to designing and making that celebrates the inherent attributes of wood from a single tree. We hope to produce products that are multiples; affordable, repeatable objects, that are both useful and artful. Proposals will be solicited by invitation and through an open RFP. Proposals can be for either: 

• Fine Art: sculpture, painting, conceptual work

• One-off/prototypes

• Design/ Craft:  preferably small multiples of everyday objects such as furnishings, housewares, toys and games, instruments, or other functional objects.

To learn more about Arborigin and register to participate, please click here (www.arborigin.com).

To read about the development of the Arborigin Project, please click here and scroll down.

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A1 Travel Grants, Mission Chinese, Sea Monsters

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The best days usually aren’t recognizable as such while they are happening, they just flow whether or not you’re paying attention. We often devote so much mental time and energy laying the groundwork for things to go right that we neglect to notice when they do. I had one of those days yesterday, but was thankfully prepared to enjoy it. It helps when you have interesting dinner plans to look forward to. Knowing a good meal and conversation is in the offing helps to frame how you structure the time leading up to it, especially during the precious few, short sunny days of mid-Autumn.

I was invited to dinner at Mission Chinese in San Francisco by my friend Joseph del Pesco and his old pal Al, to celebrate a generous award they’ve bestowed upon me. The duo founded A1 Travel Grants in 2010 to provide Bay Area artists with modest stipends to fund project-related travel. I’m very honored to have been awarded an A1 Travel Grant to study sculptures and paintings depicting sea monsters in Italy. The study will inform the Makkeweks sculpture I’m preparing to make for the City of Oakland this Spring. I’ll begin in Rome, make my way up to Milan, then take a train to Geneva to touch base with Reuge, the Swiss music box manufacturuer who are building the musical components for our Spinnradl project in Cincinnati.

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Diagram drawn by Joseph del Pesco over dinner at Mission Chinese. 

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