{ Category Archives: expedition }

Night Blues

NIGHT BLUES

My dad and I started going out for night blues when I was about twelve or thirteen. My mom packed us sandwiches and we’d stop at the liquor store for Slim Jims, ginger ale and beer. The boat left the dock from Atlantic City just after sunset. It was a party boat and our shipmates and crew were all men, mostly what my dad called ‘old salts’. There were older black gentlemen too, quietly leaning on the rails smoking Swisher Sweets, and rowdy young guys from South Philly getting loaded. I was the only kid.

You might get seasick if you stayed below while motoring out with the droning diesel fumes and a rising swell on the coal black sea. My dad called them rollers. We opted to stay out on deck and watched the crew prepare baitfish and chum to make a slick. With razor sharp fillet knives they sliced whole butterfish into chunks and tossed them into a motorized grinder, making a reddish oily pulp in a huge vat. I’m pretty sure my dad wanted to eat the chum himself. His mouth always watered around baitfish. He smoked a cigarette and sipped his can of beer while I watched schools of squid darting through the phosphors in the boat’s wake.

We’d watch the lights on shore slowly fade and disappear and the captain would cut the engine in the blackness. The fishermen prepared their lines in silence, baiting hooks with hunks of fresh bunker while the crew sprayed oily chum into a slick with long-handled ladles. All was silent save the ratcheting of reels and lapping of waves as the boat rocked and adjusted itself to the current, finding its drift. Sometimes you could see schools of bluefish flashing silver close to the surface, thumbs on reels waiting for the skipper’s signal to drop a line.

Then the baited hooks went down in a whir and the blues hit ferociously, almost immediately. We’d pull in one after the other, our arms like rubber by the end of a run. “Keep ‘er head up!”, my dad would shout. Bluefish in a feeding frenzy put up a tough fight and I prided myself on handling my own rod and landing my own fish. Soon the decks were covered with flopping blues, blood and fish scales. The night air turned cold and clear, our lungs filled with the salty sweetness of summertime Atlantic. I once hooked a very large bluefish that my dad entered into the boat’s pool. As we motored back to shore towards dawn the crew set up a scale on deck. My dad quietly slipped a six ounce lead sinker into my fish’s mouth and dropped it down the gullet. I didn’t agree with the idea but needed the money to buy a CB so went along. It didn’t matter, mine was still not the biggest fish on board.

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The Cosmic Rhyme of Fives

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Alone among a mussel cluster

a sea star glows in stillness,

vermillion

like a smile

like sunshine while

the sea grass sways.

 

Today

I stand in cold tide pools

because that

is where my bare white

feet make sense, alone among

the cosmic rhyme

of fives.

 

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Return of the Glass Banjo

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Glass Banjo, 2001, hand-blown glass, aircraft aluminum, marine plywood

My trusty Glass Banjo will be included in Southern Exposure‘s juried exhibition, This Will Never Work, on view in San Francisco from November 22 – December 14, 2013. I made the piece over twelve years ago and it’s never been exhibited, rarely even seen, so I’m anxious to see how it will be received.

The Glass Banjo is part of a series of ‘field equipment’ I made to support site specific projects in remote destinations, particularly a progression of treehouse structures I orchestrated on either coast beginning in the late 1990s. After a long day in the tree and foraging the forest for materials, my volunteer crew and I would relax under the boughs, admire our work and plan for the next morning. Our twilight reverie would inevitably require libations and music, so I thought to make an all-weather banjo for impromptu song-making. I thought it’d be interesting if all project documentation were limited to made-up banjo songs.

I based the proportions of my Glass Banjo on a late 19th-Century fretless Haynes Bay State model I had purchased in the 1980’s on Bleecker Street. I reduced the number of parts to the barest minimum, choosing materials and engineering the structure to withstand outdoor living. The hook at the back of the head allows the instrument to be hung from a tree limb, within easy reach should inspiration strike.

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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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Proof of Concept

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Whether the intended outcome is a new sculpture, furniture design or product idea, I often begin the ‘Proof of Concept’ phase with a stroll through the salvage yards. My absolute favorite is Maselli & Sons in Petaluma, CA. With over seven acres of neatly organized machine parts, scrap metal, salvaged tools, motors and hardware, it’s easy to find what you’re looking for, and even easier to find what you had no idea existed but could not do without.

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For me, Proof of Concept involves building a working model, with the goal of establishing an idea’s feasibility. Demonstrating Proof of Concept, however schematic in form, makes it much easier to proceed with cost estimates and material requirements, the next steps in planning a production when collaborating with fabricators and engineers. It also often leads to a better idea or technique than originally conceived.

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For Spinnradl, I need to prove that a hand-cranked, acoustic music box will produce a decent sound when rendered on a monumental scale. Once I know the components that produce the sound, it’s relatively straightforward to make a repeating melody. For my first experiment I found parts to make a large scale, tuned ‘comb’ of hardened steel, like a giant kalimba. Next I’ll play with how best to amplify the sound by making an integral resonating box.

 

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Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati

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View from atop the Pendleton Art Center, overlooking Cincinnati’s OTR neighborhood

Ene and I both love to discover new places and figure out what makes them tick. Fortunately, our collaborative projects as Wowhaus often require us to develop site specific works in unfamiliar territory, forcing us to accellerate the discovery-making in brief but densely-packed journeys. We’ve each developed complementary tools in the process; Ene tends to focus on the social fabric and relationships that give shape to place, and I tend to concentrate on the built environment, history and environmental factors. Of course there is a lot of overlap, but the default division of labor makes for an efficient use of limited time.

Wowhaus was recently awarded the commission to realize a public sculpture in the historic Pendleton/Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati. We spent an action-packed weekend doing reconnaissance that we are just beginning to unpack. Over the next month or so, we will circle around our combined research and collaborate on a design for a permanent public sculpture. We owe a debt of gratitude to many who have acted as our guides, hosts and workshop participants, especially Artworks Cincinnati. I plan to post a more detailed narrative as the project takes shape.

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