{ Category Archives: makkeweks }

A1 Travel Grants, Mission Chinese, Sea Monsters

italy map2

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.


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

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Sea Monsters on my mind

sea monster ref1

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.



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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The Sory Behind ‘The Guardian’


‘The Guardian’ by Frederic Fierstein, 1985, at the foot of the Berkeley Pier.

I’ve always admired the huge concrete sculpture depicting an archer/warrior seated on a mysterious creature at the foot of the Berkeley Pier. A genuine Berkeley landmark, ‘The Guardian’, made by Frederic Fierstein and a small group of collaborators in the mid-eighties, functions as much as a way-finder as a totemic talisman. I’ve been especially drawn to it lately as I prepare to begin contruction of Makkeweks, our giant seamonster sculpture pending final approval for the City of Oakland. Makkeweks will be cast in bronze from a wooden original, so the materials and technology are much diffrent, but I want our sculpture to have a similar presence as an icon in the cityscape.

Researching ‘The Guardian’, I was surprised to discover that the sculpture was made without City approval and was daringly just dropped off by the artist, or ‘donated’, as he would likely prefer. This early example of what came to be known as ‘plop art’ ignited a controversy in Berkeley as to whether the sculpture should remain. A vocal representation of Berkeley residents who loved the radical gesture by Fierstein eventually won out, and the City voted to adopt the piece as a permanent installation.

To read more about the fascinating story behind the ‘The Guardian’ and a recent interview with the artist, click here.

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Last night the City of Oakland approved our preliminary concept for a new public art project to be sited adjacent to Lake Merritt, as a part of the Lakeside Green Streets initiative. This is our biggest commission to date, so we’re very excited to bring the concept into reality. I’ve attached a few images of a scale model I made in clay, and a rendering by Ian Espinoza, the very talented architectural illustrator we hired to help with our presentation. Here is the narrative I wrote to accompany Ene’s excellent powerpoint presentation:


Lake Merritt formed naturally as a tidal lagoon with a 600’ inlet to the bay, surrounded by thousands of acres of wetland. Since the Ohlone inhabited its shores, the lagoon has been home to a huge variety of sea creatures, including seals and sea lions, otters, leopard sharks and bat rays. Not surprisingly, sightings of these charismatic mega-fauna gave rise to stories of sea monsters and mermaids, originating with the Ohlone and persisting into the mid-19th century, when the lagoon became too polluted with sewage to support much life. ‘Makkeweks’ is the Ohlone/Rumsen word for ‘sea monster’.

The idea of ‘sea monster’ is common to all coastal cultures throughout history, persisting to contemporary times. Whether or not sightings have basis in fact, a sea monster is best understood as a kind of personification of the unknown, a poetic conjecture about the perennial mysteries of the Deep. Most often depicted as giant serpents, sea monsters are usually composite creatures of the imagination, borrowing traits from whatever species actually inhabit a particular body of water. In many ways, the persistence of sea monster sightings is an indication of a healthy marine environment, a folkloric interpretation of scientific evidence.

As Lake Merritt is restored to its natural origins as a tidal, saltwater lagoon, connecting to the Bay and to the sea beyond, one can anticipate an influx of native marine wildlife, perhaps even the occasional bat ray or leopard shark. Our Makkeweks sculpture is an homage to Lake Merritt’s restoration and a harkening of the return of native fauna. Borrowing traits from the bat ray, leopard shark, pipe fish and goby, Makkeweks is a sea monster, perhaps as imagined by the Ohlone or by early European settlers, or by future generations upon glimpsing a mysterious fin or hump rising from the estuary.

Sited in the Rain Garden of Snow Park, the sculpture will be cast in bronze, measuring approximately 12’ long, 7’ wide and 4’ high. As the Rain Garden’s centerpiece, Makkeweks will be an unexpected discovery to pedestrians, attracting viewers from all directions on paths connecting to the Lake, the Promenade and the lower part of Snow Park. The sculpture also makes subtle reference to the history of Snow Park as the site of the original Oakland Zoo, where naturalist Henry Snow displayed the exotic trophies from his hunting expeditions in the 1920s. Snow Park has a robust history as a popular downtown destination; Makkeweks will help to revive this latent tradition, becoming a beloved icon by the shores of Lake Merritt.

To help contextualize Makkeweks, the sculpture will be complemented by a series of photo-etched granite plates depicting marine life supported by tidal estuaries like Lake Merritt. Mounted on various concrete seating elements within close proximity to the sculpture, the 6” diameter plates will be surrounded by stainless steel rings with laser-etched text stating the creature’s common and Latin names, actual size, and whether native or invasive/introduced.

Our goal is for the Makkeweks sculpture to inspire the feelings of awe or wonder that accompany any encounter with the unknown. We believe these feelings are the foundation of all inquiry, and hope that by introducing people to the elements comprising a healthy marine ecosystem from multiple perspectives, we will redirect attention to the need for ongoing stewardship of Lake Merritt and its surroundings. Science works best in tandem with the imagination.

rain garden1

rain garden2


To learn more about the development of Makkeweks for Oakland’s Lakside Green Streets initiative, please click here and scroll down.

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Learning from the Murmur


I was lucky to catch the last rays of early September sun glistening off the ornately glazed tiles and finials of downtown Oakland’s deco treasures; the building facades just drink up this light, colors saturated against a deep azure sky. I had arrived on bike just as the Murmur was setting up, bought tickets at the Fox to see The Hives, and strolled the seven or so blocks of Telegraph closed off to thru-traffic for the evening, scanning food trucks and bicycle vendors for something yummy to eat before folks arrived en masse. Oakland’s Art Murmur is a phantasmagorical, largely improvised street festival happening on the first Friday of each month, whose current locus is several blocks between Telegraph and Broadway, 18th and 27th streets, but is fast spreading further downtown to the harbor. It was my first Murmur and I was seriously blown away.



I was on the final leg of reconnaissance as we prepare to design a permanent sculpture to be sited by the shore of Lake Merritt just a couple of blocks to the East, a public art project commissioned by the City Of Oakland as part of the City’s innovative Lakeside Green Streets initiative. One of our goals is to create a destination that better links the Lake with the social contours of the City, particularly in light of Oakland’s exceedingly popular Art Murmur. Like the lovely art deco buildings so associated with Oakland’s uptown revival, we want the sculpture to communicate a fine-ness for the ages, while encouraging the temporal exuberance of public events like the Murmur. It’s the ultimate design challenge for any successful public space to balance these extremes, so I was very curious to witness how people interact today, what draws them together, and how the built environment might act simultaneously as catalyst and stage.


As the Murmur wound down I walked my bike down 20th to the Lake, stood at each of our proposed sites, stared out at the black water and thought about what might attract people to Lake Merritt after dark. Though I could still hear bands playing and people laughing just a couple of blocks away, no one was around. I cycled south to Lake Chalet, a thriving lakefront bistro in the old Boathouse, and found a bustling crowd inside, spillover from the Murmur. Our site is almost exactly between the two scenes, an easy walk from either. I ordered a hoppy IPA from Lake Chalet’s own brewery and pondered the possibilities.


lake merritt1

lake merritt2

To learn more about our project for Oakland’s Lakeside Green Streets, click here and scroll down.

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Lakeside Green Streets Research

lake merritt community process

Ene and Aili chat it up with local residents on the shores of Lake Merritt.

We’ve been spending a lot of time roaming the shores of Oakland’s Lake Merritt as we enter the research phase of our public art commission for the City of Oakland’s Lakeside Green Streets initiative. Our project is to be integrated into the landscape plan somewhere in the vicinity of 20th Street where it approaches Lakeside Drive, part of which involves the conversion of the waterfront block of 20th Street into a pedestrian promenade. Ene and I are excited to be working with DCE Planning, who have developed an inspiring landscape plan that combines classic, city park design with ecologically sophisticated structures and plantings.

Wowhaus public projects always commence with a series of improvised community charrettes, where we meet with random samplings of people who represent our target audience. We usually have a survey prepared and visual references to encourage conversation, but mostly we just talk to folks, see what’s on their minds about the neighborhood, the city, the state of the world. Sometimes we stumble into new territory to develop as we advance our project, but most often we find evidence that our thinking is on the right track. The results of this process help us to make a strong case for our proposal, while assuring its successful reception by the community.

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