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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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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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An Argument for Transparency

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After making a fairly complex Argument for Simplicity I’m faced with the task of devising a corollary. That is, either clarifying what I mean by simplicity in design, or attempting to make an inverse point, a simple argument for complexity. The latter seems a little facile, bordering on absurd, so I’ll attempt the former.

Simplicity in design is most robust when there is transparency between a thing and the idea behind the thing. In my observations, this occurs when a thing is introduced that represents a new idea, one that is capable of standing up to the test of time (the idea). The idea remains about the same but the thing is allowed to evolve through an iterative process that takes advantage of changes related to its manufacture, distribution, use, etc. The thing, as a stand-in for an idea, becomes indispensable.

Interestingly, the best examples I can think of that support this conjecture are products of leisure, with origins in mobility or transportation- boat hulls, bicycles, skis, surfboards, even frisbees and other flying discs. While ‘classics’ occasionally emerge from these types of things, demarcating a congruence between a thing and the conditions defining a particular time and place, their eventual obsolescence results from improvements in the same conditions- material, , technology, distribution, cost, performance, etc..

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Squalls of Fall

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November morning over Bodega Bay

The first squalls of fall spiral ashore in waves from the open ocean, lending drama to the sky and purpose to our stores of dry wood and kindling. The whales have begun their migration past Bodega Head. American Coot bob in tight clusters like black shadows in the surf while the solitary Western Grebe dives and darts for fish just beyond. Hillside meadows are greening, apples all but gone from bare mossy branches, the few remaining having been sliced and dried and stored in glass jars for winter snacking. The sun drops behind a veil of dense downslope redwood by 3, the temperature drops and thoughts turn to winding down for the day, lighting fires and taking stock for next morning’s chores. Projects follow the rhythm of daylight and we move with more urgency and intensity in sync with the low arc of the sun, rewarding ourselves with long and languid nights of rest and rejuvenation.

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An Argument for Simplicity

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As artisans we’re often compelled to make things that last, for obvious reasons. If the thing is functional we don’t want out efforts to be wasted; we want the functionality to remain in tact over time, hopefully adding to a thing’s value. If a thing is purely aesthetic, we want its beauty and meaning to translate across spans of time beyond our reach. What makes something last is all the more compelling in an age of rapidly changing technology, infrastructure and economies, where obsolescence becomes almost an intrinsic value to any manufactured thing.

I’m particularly drawn to things that were made to last that retain their beauty and functionality despite their obsolescence- barns, tools, scientific apparatus, even weapons- and find myself searching for persistent patterns that might apply to making anything of relevance to contemporary life. Here is a little glimpse of my findings related to what makes something last:

Historically, things made to last are a distillation and/or embodiment of a set of cultural values that, by mining accumulated knowledge, project forward, assuming they (the values) will remain relevant. I can think of three cases of the above:

  • architecture and hard goods (furnishings and other functional or domestic objects)
  • technology and hardware
  • information/publication/knowledge

Each of these can be parsed out into two general categories:

  • those that allow for adaptation and improvement through maintenance and use
  • those that are locked in to any combined set of beliefs, labor practices and assumptions about material resources

The first grouping would be epitomized by concepts like open source, crowd source and constitutions of binding laws, but are only occasionally manifest in the built environment unless at the service of public safety (building codes). The second grouping constitutes a more monolithic capture of a particular time and place where the same factors of labor, material and use are frozen for the ages, with varying degrees of adaptability- barns, tools, weapons, energy production, etc.. Ideally, making something that lasts today hybridizes the two groupings by taking into account the dynamic interplay of variables like labor, material, distribution and patterns of use, with the added goal of minimizing waste and energy consumption in the process.

Things will last that have the capacity to change or resist change in sync with or in anticipation of the ideas and values they embody, which is an argument for simplicity.

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A Fish Story

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Dr Constable pilots Belle 76 to Weakfish Thoroughfare, Brigantine Bay, 1976.

My first apprenticeship was at the helm of a Boston Whaler, hunting for flounder and weakfish in the back bays of South Jersey with my dad in the summers of the late 1970s. I could pilot a boat years before I had my driver’s license, and still recall my discomfort having to sit at the wheel to drive a car. I was used to standing at a center console for better balance and sight lines, and still prefer a throttle lever to a gas pedal. My dad bought the boat in 1976 and named her Belle 76 after the devastating hurricane of that year. We both took the Coast Guard Auxiliary Seamanship course at a local library the winter before launching, learning our knots, rights of way and the emergency maneuvers appropriate to our vessel, an open hull, center-console 17’ Boston Whaler Sport.

My family has always been mildly obsessed with fishing during summers on the Jersey Shore. Baitcasting from docks and rented skiffs or surfcasting on the beach, we’ve caught our share of snapper, flounder, porgie, sand shark, sea robin, king, tautog and eel, and know well the patterns of our waterways. On special occasions when I was a kid, we’d go for ‘Night Blues’ on an all-night party boat miles offshore. I’d watch the crew grind chum while we motored out- butterfish, mackerel, smelt- the fishy smell mixing with diesel exhaust in a nauseating cocktail I somehow managed to ignore. We’d watch the pre-casino shore lights of Atlantic City fade over the horizon and knew we’d arrived when the captain cut the engines and the crew made a chum slick of ground fish, sprayed over the rails with giant ladles in a greasy soup meant to attract the frenzy-feeding blues.

Into the slick we’d lay our hooks, loosely baited with chunks of the same chumfish, while the boat drifted and bobbed noiselessly in the black ocean swell, waiting for the first strike. Sometimes you’d see shiny flashes of the blues’ broadsides through the slick as they emerged in giant schools from the deep; sometimes they’d be chasing schools of squid, who’d boil to the surface in fear, sometimes darting into the night air. You knew they were starting to strike when you’d sense the frantic quiver of poles bending and hear the whirring chatter of slackened star drags spinning under a load. Most of the fishermen on board were what my Dad called ‘old salts’, so they made not a sound, stoic in their workmanlike chore as the fish flopped on board in waves along the rails. You could barely keep your hook in the water as the bluefish piled on board, filling trash cans, laundry bags and coolers to the very brim. For the majority on the boat, a good catch meant food for the family in the freezer. We’d fillet a few of the brightest from our catch, but you can only eat so much bluefish, especially the big ones, whose flesh is dark, greasy and gamy, so we’d give most away.

We ‘went for blues’ offshore several times in our Whaler, but without electronics on board or proper trolling gear, never had much luck finding the migrating schools. Mostly we were content to poke around the back bays of Brigantine and along the inland waterway drifting and jigging bucktail for flounder while hoping to hook the elusive weakfish. After a couple of summers voyaging and fishing with my dad, I earned the privilege of taking the boat out on my own, and loved taking friends and family out to our favorite fishing grounds, even if just for fun. I began to dream of an extended cruise down the inland waterway, and planned alterations to the Whaler to accommodate camp cruising. The only one I realized was also my first real wood-working project, a mahogany windscreen to shield the pilot in a headwind or foul weather. I had plans for a canvas canopy to attach to this, and for a folding ‘boom’ to support a sleeping tent, but my need for a summer job to make money for college soon trumped my boyhood dreams, and we sold the boat after a summer of its barely being used. I shifted from catching fish to cooking it, working several consecutive summers as a line cook at the island’s popular seafood restaurant into my early twenties.

Still, I’m grateful to have found wood-working through an apprenticeship in fishing and cruising with my dad, and will always pull from my training in piloting and seamanship. And I still make a mean fried fish.

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A Picnic Adventure

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We launched our boats in a lingering morning fog.

Some days just call for a picnic, and some picnics call for adventure. So went my thinking when I invited my friend Cal to join me on my favorite six mile paddle down Estero Americano to a remote beach on an unseasonably warm day in late February. Like so many intrepid leaps into what lies beyond, ours began at the end of a dirt road, where we launched our boats in a lingering morning fog.

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The rugged shore at the mouth of the Estero, looking towards Bodega Head.

The day warmed as the fog lifted and the slough opened up. We bucked a strong headwind on the last leg and beached our boats to find the waterway’s mouth closed to the Pacific despite the high tide. Finding shelter from the wind in the dunes, we spread our picnic on scraps of driftwood and enjoyed a delicious repast of boiled duck eggs, salami with cheese, olives and walnut bread, finished off with apples and strong tea with honey. Weary from the long paddle, we laid on our backs in the sand and watched the gulls drift by in the wind and a solo hawk hover uncannily still.

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We used our paddles as sails on the journey home.

With a strong wind at our backs on the voyage home, we were able to use our paddles as sails for long stretches. Our plan was to find a protected cove on the way to stop to try a little drawing and painting, but the wind was too persistent so we opted for an early return.  I look forward to breaking out the art supplies next time, but was happy enough to have the company of an old friend on real picnic adventure.

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