{ Category Archives: makkeweks }

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.


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

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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.



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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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.

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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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