Friday, February 27, 2015

Tidbits: RIP Leonard Nimoy (February 27, 2015)

Leonard Nimoy died today. Sorry to hear this news. Like most, I knew him mainly as Spock in the original Star Trek series and the original series has always been the real Star Trek to me. It was the one I remember watching in real time as a child. Thursday nights at 6:00 is what I remember, but memory is a tricky thing.

My father worked with Nimoy in the late 1940s at the Pasadena Playhouse. I remember my father saying that he respected Nimoy for his diligence--that Nimoy would accept almost any role offered him and work hard to do his best at it, often roles that other young actors at the time would look down on. His diligence appears to have served him well over a long career.  RIP.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Miscellaneous: Fox on the Garden Wall (February 26, 2015)

An unusual morning visitor in the garden today. I spied a fox running across the driveway. He hopped up onto the garden wall and posed there for a short spell.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Art I'm Making: New Collages (January 2015)

Still catching up, here are a couple of recent collages--these two finished in January. Untitled Collage No. 85 (Santa Rosa), picture above, uses scraps of various blue papers I've made in the past but also some of the yellow papers I've painted more recently. I like the way the central white element "talks to" the comb-like orange form at the bottom of this piece--and the dance of objects around that little conversation.

Untitled Collage No. 86 (Santa Rosa) is a smaller piece, one that draws on mottled, blue, grey, and maroon papers that remind me of old-fashioned marbled endpapers from book jackets. This is a dense piece that reminds me of layers of soil in cross section--although I had no such idea in mind as I was working on it.

Click on the images for a larger view. For more, use the Art I'm Making tab to the right or visit my collage website at (requires Flash Player).

Books I'm Reading: Napoleon: A Biography

I recently read The Black Count, about Alex Dumas, one of Napoleon's most successful (and unjustly neglected) generals, incidentally the father of Alexandre Dumas, the writer, who drew on his father's imprisonment for his novel The Count of Monte Christo. It made me feel rather ignorant about Napoleon. Happily, ignorance is easily remedied, if you enjoy reading. So, I  picked this book up from my bookshelf. It was a gift--the last gift--I gave my father, shortly before he died. He never read it. It reverted to me after his death and it's been sitting on a bookshelf here since.

After finishing this comprehensive biography of Napoleon, I'm left wondering, what was it all for? The author estimates Napoleon was responsible for the deaths of about 4 million people, both soldiers and civilians throughout Europe. He (Napoleon, not the author) appears to have been extremely selfish, extremely insensitive to the suffering of the civilians in the countries he overran, and of even his own soldiers. Virtually all the territory he took was later lost to France. He rolled back many forward-looking reforms that came out of the Revolution. So, what did all those deaths achieve? It's hard to say. I suppose the Rosetta Stone and other discoveries made by the scientific experts that accompanied his early campaigns (mostly the Egyptian campaign) were worthwhile, but probably not worth the lives of so many people.    

Strange also is the parabolic development of Napoleon's military genius. It seems to have bloomed rapidly, peaked, and then abandoned him. The second half of his tenure as France's leader was marked by bad military judgment with only a few exceptions--a few moments of resurgent brilliance. He seems to have been particularly bad at judging character, failing to sack incompetent and deceitful generals, and incapable of doing anything but indulging his ungrateful relatives.

Having read no other Napoleon biographies, I can't say how this one compares to others, but it appears to have been well received by critics and it gives the impression of being well researched and even-handed. At the very least, it's lucidly and engagingly written and without a single typographical error, which is refreshing (I read the 2011 Arcade Publishing paperback edition).

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Art I'm Making: New Collages

I've continued to make collages since last posting one on these pages, but I've not been keeping up with my production. Here's a start toward getting caught up. These are Untitled Collage No. 83 (Santa Rosa) and Untitled Collage No. 84 (Santa Rosa), both from late last year. The former is a departure for me as it incorporates a found object, in this case the cover of an old book I found at a Goodwill Store. Ordinarily I wouldn't have removed a book's cover, but one cover was already missing. I liked the worn leather corners, the texture, and the bits of dangling string from the binding.  I like the brooding, stormy look I've achieved.

In contrast, No. 84 is bright and more cheery, dominated by yellows. Always experimenting, I love the fact that there is an infinity of satisfying compositions. For some reason, the photo here of No. 84 insists on coming out much darker than the image appears on my computer and the collage is in real life, despite making adjustments. The original is more subtle. Imagine it paler. Imagine it with less contrast between the yellow discs and the yellow behind them.

Click on the images for a larger view. For more, use the Art I'm Making tab to the right or visit my collage website at (requires Flash Player).

Friday, February 6, 2015

Rain: New Storm Brings Long-awaited Rain (February 6-9, 2015)

After a January with virtually no rain, it's good to be in the middle of a substantial storm that's already dropped about an inch and a half of new rain since early in the morning of the 6th. I'll wait until the storm has passed to add to the tally, but predictions range from between three to six inches. Every drop is welcome.

[Update: On the morning of the 7th, I found 2.25 inches in the rain gauge. That brings our total for the 2014-2015 rain year to 21.40 inches. It's clear again now, but more rain is on the way....]

[Update: On the morning of the 9th, there was another 1.35 inches in the rain gauge, bringing the total to 22.75 inches. Average for this date is about 22.5 inches.]

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms: Daffodils, Pink Flowering Plum (February 3, 2015)

A stretch of dry, unseasonably warm weather has coaxed out flowers in the garden. On February 3, the first yellow daffodil blossoms opened. The pink flowering plum tree in the side garden (Prunus blireiana) starting blooming the same day. This year the sparrows and finches left the buds alone (probably because I've not been feeding the birds), so it looks like we will have a full tree of flowers for the first time in a while. February 3 is on the early end of the normal range for both plants here. They have bloomed between February 2 and about February 20 in a typical year in the past. A storm is on the way, though. I hope these blossoms don't all get lost before we've had a chance to enjoy them.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Serendipitous Art: Chalk Board, Healdsburg CA (January 30, 2015)

A chalkboard used to keep score next to a bocce ball court at a restaurant in Healdsburg, CA looked like art to me. Unintended art, serendipitous art.

For more unintended art, see my blog Serendipitous Art.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Rain: A Little Drizzle

Drizzle for much of the day on the 16th added 0.1 inches to our total for the current rain year. The total now stands at 19.15 inches at my location.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Miscellaneous: The Lesson of Violence?

The war on terrorism, they tell us, has done nothing but breed new terrorists--terrorists that would not have emerged had we not waged war. Terrorists attack and kill at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The result is a new cartoon of the muslim prophet in an issue published in vastly greater numbers than usual, bought and seen by far more people than would have otherwise seen it. Maybe there is a lesson here for both sides?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Art I'm Looking At: Arnold Newman: Masterclass at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco

While some of Arnold Newman's images are very well known--including a few of the most recognizable photographic portraits of the 20th Century--my guess is the vast majority of people would be unable to tell you the name of the photographer behind that famous portrait of Stravinsky at the piano, the famous Picasso portrait with the sitter's hand on his face, the famous Salvatore Dali portrait with the hanging wire, the famous portrait of Yasser Arafat.... The images are instantly familiar, the name of the man who created them less so. It's therefore a treat to see so many of Newman's photographs--most but not all portraits--on display at one time, nearly 200 prints in all, in the first posthumous retrospective of his work. Even those who think themselves very familiar with Arnold Newman are likely to find a lot to look at here.

"Masterclass" is an apt subtitle for the show now on at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum: with only a few exceptions, each of the images on display is an object lesson in the art of photography--more specifically, in the art of composition. Newman had an uncanny ability to capture what was essential about the sitter and his or her environment and to see physical manifestations of the connections between the two. There is something wonderfully abstract existing simultaneously with the projected presence of the sitter in the portraits and the abstract images seem to project something alive beyond their formal elements.

Go. Drink the photographs in one by one. Learn from the placement of compositional elements in space--the collage-like effect of some of the images (notably the Greorge Grosz portrait, above left), the shapes and their echoes so carefully arranged in others (Jean Arp, Yasuo Kuniyoshi--Kuniyoshi at the top of the page), the careful attention to cropping in all. Almost no one did it better. Arnold Newman: Masterclass is on view through February 1, 2015 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, at 736 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 (415-655-7800).

Art I'm Looking At: J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

I visited the Contemporary Jewish Museum last week to see the extraordinary show of photographs by Arnold Newman on view there through February 1, 2015 but along the way stopped in to see J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch at the same museum, the current show in a series that has focused on Jewish book illustrators. I'm so glad to have seen this small, imaginatively installed tribute to the ground-breaking illustrations of J. Otto Seibold for his Mr. Lunch series with Vivian Walsh. Mr. Lunch is a small white terrier who had charming adventures in a series of books from the 1990s that, unfortunately, are now out of print. Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride (1993), Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe (1994), and Free Lunch (1996) deserve to find a new audience.

Seibold was among the first children's book illustrators to use a computer to execute his drawings, working on a Macintosh with Illustrator. I bought my first computer (a Macintosh Centris 650) in February 1994. It had a 25 MHz processor. Photoshop at the time was black and white only. I imagine Illustrator was equally crude compared with its current iteration. This is the period the books come from. Seibold was a pioneer. What is extraordinary about his style, however, is the way he achieves a warmth not usually associated with computer-generated imagery. His drawings maintain a very human quality. They don't have a distracting digital look. Despite the early software, they don't look at all crude. They require no apologies whatsoever. His illustrations are distinctive and simply delightful--immediately appealing but also peppered with funny, quirky details that make them a pleasure to pore over. Mr. Lunch and his surroundings owe a greater debt visually to the work of Miroslav Sasek, best known for his series of books about great cities of the world, such as This is San Francisco--a debt Seibold freely acknowledges. Margaret and H. A. Rey (creators of Curious George) are another apparent and freely acknowledged influence. Yet, Mr. Seibold looks like Mr. Seibold.

The installation recreates scenes from some of the books. The entrance to the room is through airport customs, taken from Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride. A plane from the book sits in the middle of the space. On one side of the room is the prison cell Mr. Lunch finds himself in in another adventure (echoing Curious George's incarceration for having inadvertently called out the fire department to quell a non-existent fire). On a back wall, facing outside windows, Mr. Seibold has painted a mural referring to the installation of the show--a new and unique work. The walls otherwise are adorned with prints of illustrations from the books, some paired with original sketches that preceded the digital renderings. Well worth a visit. J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, at 736 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 (415-655-7800) through March 8, 2015.

Books I'm Reading: The Black Count

It's always a pleasure to read a book that lifts a deserving subject out of undeserved obscurity. Tom Reiss's The Black Count (I read the paperback edition, Broadway Books, 2012) paints such a vivid picture of General Alex Dumas that you wonder why his name was not better known before Reiss's book appeared (the general was quite famous in his day, but had been largely forgotten). Perhaps it's simply my own ignorance that's been lifted here, but, prompted by reading the story of the black count, I'm now reading a thick, recent biography of Napoleon.  Surprisingly, that book mentions Dumas only in passing, although Dumas became General-in-Chief of the Army of the Alps, distinguishing himself during the French campaigns against Austria in the 1790s, and acted as Napoleon's General-in-Chief of the Cavalry during the later Egyptian campaign. It seems history--or historians anyway--have slighted Dumas as deeply as Napoleon, who quickly grew jealous of the tall, strikingly handsome count, despite his having been one of the Emperor's most loyal and successful generals, treating him rather shabbily. Reiss's book is interesting not only for the details of General Dumas's life it presents but also for the background the book offers illuminating early life in the French colonies (specifically Saint-Domingue), the history of race-related legislation in France (which was remarkably forward-looking just before and during the French Revolution, although Napoleon rolled back much of the progress), and the connections between the life story of General Alex Dumas (who was imprisoned for years in a tower and poisoned) and the work of his writer son, Alexandre Dumas, who drew heavily on his father's experiences for his novel The Count of Monte Cristo. Meticulously researched, going back to original sources; half the fun of reading this book is following the first-person sub-narrative of Reiss's detective work.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Art I'm Looking At: Houghton Hall at The Legion of Honor

After seeing the Keith Haring show at the De young Museum, it took a moment to adjust to the very different mood of the Legion of Honor's show of work from Houghton Hall, in England, a large house originally built by Sir Robert Walpole, in 1776, generally considered a masterpiece of Palladian architecture. The show includes a large number of paintings from the Houghton Hall collection displayed along with furniture, dinner ware, silver, rugs, and other objects laid out in several large rooms. The walls have been covered from floor to ceiling with photographic reproductions of the original rooms, which give a fairly good sense of how the various object on display would look in context.

There's an entire room of Sargents--probably the highlight of the exhibition--paintings that rarely travel. They included a painting Sargent did to document World War I damage to a cathedral. His painting of gassed WWI soldiers is well known, but the captions in the Houghton Hall show suggest he was commissioned to do a lot of this type of work, which I hadn't known. There are a couple of full-length Sargent society portraits of note and several attractive charcoal portraits of Houghton Hall residents, but I especially enjoyed a quickly sketched head of a gondolier (c. 1878) from a visit to Venice (pictured).

In the room with the Sargents, I was surprised to see a very familiar-looking head of Pope Innocent X, clearly related to the famous Velazquez portrait. Approaching a little closer, I read the label. The painting turned out to be a Velazquez study for the larger painting.
I also enjoyed a portrait of Catherine Shorter, Lady Walpole (c. 1710) by Swedish artist Michael Dahl. The wall tag mentions that she was extravagant--"frequently attending the opera and buying expensive clothes and jewelry," although she is fairly modestly attired in the portrait. The Dahl portrait is shown in a facsimile of the Houghton Hall library, with walls covered in faux books--large photographic wall coverings like the ones mentioned above. The room displays several pieces of furniture and an interesting wool rug described as English, but I noticed that triangles, apparently cut from the borders of oriental carpets, have been worked into its four corners.

Among the most beautiful objects in the entire show are two large rolls of handmade Chinese wallpapers (detail below). It wasn't exactly clear, but these appear to be actual leftovers from papers made for bedrooms in Houghton Hal, papers that presumably still cover the walls in some rooms today. The many birds on the papers are exquisitely drawn. The foliage, rocks, and other background elements are highly stylized, in some places becoming almost entirely abstract, while somehow retaining the power to evoke environments the birds might have been found in. The blue is especially striking. The show was worth seeing just for these wallpapers. The Houghton Hall exhibit runs through January 18, 2015 at the Legion of Honor.


Wines I'm Making: Ten Years of Clos du Tal

I lined up a bottle from each of our ten vintages--2004 to 20013--the other day and took a quick photo of them. If you're paying attention, you'll notice that there are actually only nine bottles--2005 is missing. That was the year the raccoons found the grapes before I had figured out how to effectively deter the critters (which involves nets and an electric fence). While I did make six bottles of wine that year from what the raccoons left behind, it was so bad I didn't bother making a label. I've designed a label for the wine each year in every other year.

Happily, all the other vintages have ranged from good to very good, with the 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 drinking best at the moment. The 2006 is beginning to feel a little tired. It's still too early to be certain, but my guess is that Clos du Tal will generally be at peak at 5-7 years old. I will, however, continue to keep bottles back from every vintage to see how they age. The 2014 wine is resting in carboys at the moment. Last week I bottled the most recent batch of hard cider I've made. The cider should be undergoing its in-bottle secondary fermentation. Next week I'll open one to see how it's coming along.  

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Tidbits--RIP: Gael Reed

Sad news over the weekend--news of the death of Gael Reed, long-time kindergarten teacher at Spring Creek Elementary School, in Santa Rosa, CA. Grateful that my child had her as a teacher. Grateful to have been able to call her a friend. Few teachers are as imaginative and giving, few teachers as filled with the kind of inner strength and beauty she had. Grateful to have known her. Heartbroken that she's gone, taken too soon, a victim of cancer. She is mourned and will be long remembered by the many who loved her.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Art I'm Looking At: The Art-o-Mat

This post was prompted by a post I happened to see today on Hyperallergic, following an old link to an article about the Art-o-mat®.

What is an Art-o-mat® you ask? If the name suggests some connection with the culture of automation (and naming) of the 1950s and 1960s, you're right on track. A group called Artists in Cellophane, the brain child of artist Clark Whittington, operates a fleet of old cigarette vending machines from the period that now dispense art rather than cigarettes--machines Whittington has dubbed Art-o-mats®.

I first encountered an Art-o-mat® in the entrance lobby of the Crocker Museum of Art, in Sacramento, in the summer of 2012 on my first visit to that museum. A $5 bill and a pull on a lever dispensed a cigarette pack-sized art object of my choice (eventually--the machines are old, finicky, and not tolerant of much deviation from the size and weight of a cigarette pack; my choice got stuck and a staff member had to open the machine with a key to retrieve it). If you're old enough to remember cigarette machines, the idea makes instant sense. I had to buy something, just to support the whimsy. Sitting on my bookshelf now is a small (very small) painting of a Laysan Duck by artist Alice Dean. I had misplaced the little painting right after buying it, until yesterday, when looking through a small travel bag I had used that day two years ago, I finally found the purchase again. The finding of my little duck portrait and seeing the article about the Art-o-mat® coming a day apart was the serendipity that truly prompted this post.

This being the start of a new year--another bit of serendipity--and the start of new years being the traditional time for starting new projects, I went to the Art-o-mat® website (well worth a visit) after reading the Hyperallergic post, suddenly curious about the location of other Art-o-mat® machines that might be near me. I see that there are seven in the Bay Area, four in San Francisco, the one at the Crocker Museum in Sacramento, one at the San Mateo Public Library, and one on the Stanford campus, in Palo Alto. In San Francisco, there's an Art-o-mat® at the Exploratorium (Pier 15), one each at two locations of The American Conservatory Theater (415 Geary St. and 1119 Market St.), and one at the RayKo Photo Center (428 3rd St.). According to the Art-o-mat® site, there are more than 100 working Art-o-mat® machines around the United States. You can find them all on a map on the site. Pictured at top is the Art-o-mat® at The Exploratorium (photo from the Art-o-mat® website). Perhaps I will attempt to make a collection of artworks from all the Bay Area Art-o-mat® machines in 2015. If you're an artist and willing to meet the stringent dimensional requirements that allow the machines to work, Artists in Cellophane is looking for contributing artists.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Plants I'm Growing: White Flowering Plum (December 22, 2014)

The white flowering plum tree (Prunus mume) behind the house and the tiny cyclamen, Cyclamen coum, are always the first plants to bloom in the new year (I count late December flowers in the following calendar year). This year the plum began blooming on December 22,  just before Christmas. It is wonderfully fragrant. I love the scent as much as the blossoms. The little  cyclamen--the flower stalks stand only about 3 inches high--began blooming on December 30. Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Wines I'm Making: Labels for the 2013 Cabernet

Just finished designing labels for our 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc. I added the words "10th Anniversary Vintage," as this is our tenth wine from the little backyard vineyard we planted in 2001. We made our first wine in 2004.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Miscellaneous: Kitty Knows Best

Cats always find the coolest spot in the house or garden in the summer. In winter, they always find the warmest spot. If our cat, Milo, isn't curled up on someone's bed, he's always outside. In the hot summer months he sleeps under tall bamboo clumps in the side yard. In the cold, wet months he's just as likely to be outside. When I pull into the driveway at this time of year, he often hops up onto the hood of the car and sleeps there until the engine cools. Sleep is good anywhere the temperature is right.

Wines I'm Making: Bottling and Racking (December 19, 2014)

Busy yesterday and today doing wine chores. I bottled our 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc yesterday. We made 40 bottles in 2013, which is fairly normal, although in a small harvest year like 2014, we make only about 25 bottles. 2013 was our tenth vintage. I've just designed a label. I'll be taking it down to the printers to be printed this afternoon.

This morning I racked and sulfited the 2014 Cabernet wine, which has been undergoing malolactic fermentation since the middle of October. I didn't bother to test it. I'm assuming the fermentation is finished. I also racked and sulfited the 2014 rosé from our Sangiovese grapes. As usual, racking was a breeze. A layer of tartaric acid crystals always forms over the lees in this wine (below), which means there's no danger of picking up unwanted sediment during racking. Next I will have to design labels for the rosé. I also have a hard cider fermentation ready for bottling, but that will have to wait until another day.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Rain: Yet more rain (December 15, 2014)

It rained much of last night and most of today (December 15, 2014). There's another 1.1 inches in the rain gauges this afternoon. That brings our total for the 2014-2015 rain year to 16.40 inches--now well above normal, but it's still early and we haven't by any means made up for the drought of the past two years. That said, this is good. Let it keep it up.

[Update: Another 0.2 inches overnight. Our total as of the morning of the 16th was thus 16.6 inches.]

[Update: By the morning of December 18, we had had another 1.25 inches of rain at my location, bringing our total to 17.85 inches. Right now the forecast is for more rain tomorrow and again on Saturday, December 20.]

[Yet another update: As of the evening of the 19th, we had received another 0.85 inches. Total now stands at 18.70 inches.]

[There's more: As of the 21st, we'd added another 0.35 inches. It just keeps raining--which is great. We need it. People are even beginning to get tired of it. Total is now 19.05 inches at my location.]

Friday, December 12, 2014

Art I'm Looking at: San Francisco--Keith Haring: The Political Line at the De Young

Two sharply contrasting exhibits are now featured attractions at the main venues of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco--the De Young Museum and the Legion of Honor. I visited both recently, starting at the De Young to see Keith Haring: The Political Line, a show  highlighting Haring's political activism. I enjoyed seeing the very large sample of work presented but kept wondering what fraction of his production might be called political. A little more context would have been helpful. Given the short period he was active (about twelve years, from 1978 to 1990) and the large number of works on display, my guess is that most of his work was politically motivated, particularly toward the end of his life, when his AIDS diagnosis spurred him and his growing fame had given him an international platform.

Motivation and message aside, what's clear from looking at this art is that Haring lived his short life at a fast pace. The work exudes energy. The zig-zag lines children use to depict lightning or electricity when they draw would not be out of place here. Garish, unmodulated hues; clashing colors set side by side; strong contrasts; angular, heavily outlined shapes; and "lines of motion" borrowed from the vocabulary of comic book artists all contribute. Influences are numerous and diverse. Mayan art, quilts, aboriginal art, graffiti art, the Nazca lines, comic books, advertising art, the chalk corpse outlines of Hollywood movies, writhing Boschian hells, and technological hells where demonic robots reign over electronic gadgets come to mind when looking at Haring's work. Yet, the work is always immediately identifiable as Haring's. This dialectical component is apparent also in the way his images operate on the level of pictographs--simple, symbolic, overtly didactic, and quickly absorbed on the one hand--yet remaining cryptic and baffling at the same time. Haring's is a language encountered in an anxiety dream; we feel we should know the language--and we recognize some of its words--but don't fully understand the meaning. The result is a lingering unease. Although there are political messages embedded in much of the work, Haring rarely gave his work titles--again leaving the viewer somewhat off balance. Without the direction provided by a title, it's often difficult to be entirely sure what Haring intended, despite his use of direct, icon-like pictorial elements (sometimes evocative of pictorial road signs or Olympic event symbols). That said, the work is not entirely without humor. There is joy in some of the dancing figures, a vitality in the glowing babies, and Andy Mouse (which does have a title) simultaneously pokes fun at Walt Disney and Andy Warhol; it made me laugh out loud (1985, private collection; detail above). A panel full of cartoon-like penis drawings from a sketchbook, many accompanied by diary-like entries indicating where the artist was when he made them, was funny too.

Haring's line is deft but un-nuanced. It sometimes leaves me cold, but I was impressed by the consistent confidence of its execution, whether in ink on paper, chalk on expired subway ad space, or in vinyl paint on a tarpaulin. I examined the works very closely. Nowhere is there any evidence of preparatory work--no sketching, no planning. Each piece appears to have been an unrehearsed improvisation, drawing on an ever-evolving vocabulary of signs and symbols, many recurring over and over again--barking dogs, crawling babies, snake-like creatures, robots, angular dancers, angels, crosses, bats, figures with holes in them, flying saucers, penises, electronic gadgets, and figures with Xs instead of brains.

The early subway drawings in the show were intriguing. These are perhaps the quintessential Haring. It was the subway drawings in chalk that earned him his first widespread recognition. They seem the most genuine expression of his gift. They were done quickly, as ephemeral performance pieces, in the platform time between connecting trains. They were done knowing the activity was technically illegal and might result in a fine (drawings on the blank panels were considered graffiti) and, like a graffiti artist, Haring made them knowing they wouldn't last, that they might be quickly covered by a new ad or wiped away. I was not alone in wondering how the examples in the show (presumably quite rare) were preserved, as they appear to be in the original metal frames that surrounded the subway advertising spaces they were made in, the whole in each case apparently lifted off the wall. Done in soft chalk, the subway drawings have an affinity with brush-and-ink calligraphy in that the artist has only one chance to get it right. Every hesitation is preserved. There is no going back to make corrections. Remarkably, there is virtually no evidence of hesitation. Perhaps our view of the subway drawings is a necessarily distorted one, based only on a few well-executed extant examples, but other work in the show suggests Haring didn't often hesitate. While some of the later work seems a little too practiced, a little too obvious in its message, a little complacent, I was generally impressed by the show.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Books I'm Reading: The Passenger Pigeon

The word "extinct" came into my consciousness as a child obsessed with dinosaurs in the early 1960s, when we had far fewer dinosaurs to think about than a child does today. The word came shrouded in a pall of utterly final doom overlaid with something giggly because it sounded like "stink," and that was associated in my childish mind with defecation. Extinction seemed absolute and infinite, and the idea of infinity was mind-boggling and dreadful in a vague way I would have been hard-pressed to articulate. Extinction. Death forever. Irretrievable loss. No living examples. The giggly component only made the idea seem more horrible, in the way that a murderous clown is horrible. As an adult, the idea of extinction has become no more fathomable or less fascinating, even if education and reading have greatly multiplied the number of animals and plants I connect with the word "extinct."

I wonder what images first come to mind when the average person hears the word today? By "average person," I mean simply non-biologists--people who do not study extinction or extinct animals. Aside from dinosaurs, I imagine the Dodo and the Passenger Pigeon symbolize extinction for a large number of people. The dinosaurs loom large because they loomed so large--literally--and because the era they dominated was so long ago. The Dodo has become the icon of extinct bird species, probably because of its awkward, comical face coupled with the paradox of flightlessness in a bird; the vulnerability of flightless birds always fascinates. The Passenger Pigeon occupies a special place among extinct species, however, for a number of reasons, and Errol Fuller's book The Passenger Pigeon (Princeton University Press, 2015), published more or less on the 100th anniversary of the Passenger Pigeon's demise, is both an examination of that bird's special qualities and a memorial to its passing.

First among the reasons the passenger pigeon is special is the sheer number of them that once existed. The Passenger Pigeon is believed to have been the most numerous bird on the planet at one time--numbering in the billions, birds blotting out the sun as they moved in miles-long flocks in search of food. The descriptions of Passenger Pigeon flocks quoted in the book are in several cases familiar, but no less dramatic for that. Among these is the well-known description of an anonymous journalist that appeared in the May 20, 1871 issue of the Fond du Lac Commonwealth:

Imagine a thousand threshing machines running under full headway, accompanied by as many steamboats groaning off steam, with an equal number of...trains passing through covered bridges...and you possibly have a faint conception of the terrific roar following the monstrous black cloud of pigeons as they passed in rapid flight...a few feet before our faces...nearly on a level with the muzzles of our guns.... [as quoted by Fuller in The Passenger Pigeon]

And it was these guns--the incessant, rapacious hunting of the birds--along with habitat destruction, that finally led to the Passenger Pigeon's doom. The decline was rapid. Only about 75 years separate the death of the last known bird from descriptions of what appear to have been stable populations (although we will never really know where the tipping point was). By the time people realized the bird was in serious decline, efforts to reverse the trend were far too little far too late.

The case of the Passenger Pigeon is special also because it's recent and well documented. Fuller's chapter headed "The Last Captives" is particularly moving. It's accompanied by rare photographs of the last known birds--not only the most famous among them--Martha, the last of her species, lost to the world on September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo. We know the exact date of extinction of only a handful of other species. If the human role in the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon may be excusable to some degree by appeal to a combination of ignorance of the dynamics of extinction and the difficulty there must have been just conceiving of the disappearance of such an abundant animal, the extinction stands as a marker along the road of progress of the collective human consciousness. Before that marker, it is tempting and consoling to make excuses. We knew no better. After the well-recorded event, we can no longer plead ignorance of the human role in species extinction. And, in defining that shift, the Passenger Pigeon is again special.

Fuller's book is not an exhaustive study of the bird's biology, although a short appendix by Julian Pender Hume briefly discusses the bird's anatomy. In his introduction, Fuller himself says "This work is not intended as a textbook or a detailed monograph covering every aspect of Passenger Pigeon research and every known piece of information about the species." He refers the reader to works by William Mershon (1907), Arlie Schorger (1955), and Joel Greenberg (2014) for scholarly appraisals of the Passenger Pigeon, calling his own volume rather a celebration of the bird's existence and a reminder of the fragility of the natural world. Beautifully illustrated, and including an especially attractive section on the Passenger Pigeon in art and books, it serves that purpose well. Another very appealing offering from Princeton University Press. The front jacket illustration, reproduced above in full, is John James Audubon's depiction of a male/female Passenger Pigeon pair from his Birds of North America.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Rain: Storm Rolling In (December 10, 2014)

A predicted storm has moved into the area and we've had heavy rain now for the past couple of hours. It's supposed to last all night and into the late afternoon tomorrow. So far, we've received 1.25 inches of new precipitation. I emptied the rain gauge to help ensure it doesn't overflow overnight--that would now require six more inches of rain, which seems unlikely. As of 10:00PM on the 10th, our total for the 2014-2015 rain year was 9.45 inches, well above normal, but it's early. It's not unusual to have a lot of rain in December and then to return to droughty conditions later in the season. More tomorrow.

[Update: Checking the rain gauge this morning, we have had another three inches of rain overnight. It's still coming down and moderately strong winds buffeted the house all night, but I've seen worse. As of 7:30AM, December 11, our total for the year had risen to 12.45 inches. More later.]

[Update: Twelve hours later (7:30PM on December 11) we've had another 1.65 inches, bringing the total to 14.10 inches for the rain year--now well above normal for this date, but, again, we'll have to see if this becomes part of a sustained trend or proves to be just a one-off string of storms. In any case, the rain is good. Nobody's complaining about it yet.]

[Update: In a lull now, but we had another 0.85 inches overnight on the 11th and the morning of the 12th. Total now (mid-afternoon on the 12th) stands at 14.95 inches.]

Miscellaneous: Why It's Called The Golden Gate

Driving north from San Francisco yesterday I had an opportunity to gaze at the waters between San Francisco and the Marin Headlands, just before sunset. I imagined this place was given the name "Golden Gate" because San Francisco was the gateway to the gold fields during the 19th century California Gold Rush, but I had a simultaneous feeling the name may have preceded gold fever--that this view of the straits bathed in golden light was the source of the name.

Naturally, I looked it up. According to the website of the Golden Gate Bridge Highway & Transportation District, it was Captain John C. Fremont who gave the strait its name, the name we now associate more closely with the bridge across the strait, but he is said to have been inspired not by the view at sunset (or yet-to-be-discovered gold), but by the potential for trade with the East that San Francisco's harbor seemed to represent. He is quoted in 1846 calling the strait "a golden gate to trade with the Orient." According to the same source, the name first appeared in print "in Fremont's Geographical Memoir, submitted to the U.S. Senate on June 5, 1948" [sic--no doubt 1848 was intended]. So, gold, meaning the potential rewards of trade, but surely this view and then the Gold Rush--shortly after Fremont spoke about trade potential--have played a role in associating San Francisco forever with gold. In any case, the name seems wholly appropriate when you see the water gilded by the sun like this, just as golden brown, dormant grasses--in summer the main feature of our natural landscape--seem justification enough for calling California The Golden State.

The bridge, at my back, was visible through light fog.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Rain: Another 0.85 inches

Although it was clear today (December 6, 2014), off-and-on rain in the past couple of days has added another 0.85 inches to our annual total. We now stand at 8.20 inches at my location for the 2014-2015 rain year, which is a little more than an inch ahead of normal for this date in Santa Rosa.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Plants I'm Growing: Flowering Cherry (December 4, 2014)

Yesterday, December 4, 2014, the little cherry by the driveway started blooming. I like this plant because, like the camellias, it blooms in the winter, when everything is wet and dreary. This is a cherry whose name I've forgotten, but it looked very pretty yesterday with fresh blossoms in the rain against a backdrop of orange leaves still on the plant.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Art I'm Looking At: "The Art of Collage" on the Art Wall at Shige Sushi (Dec. 6, 2014 - Jan. 31, 2015)

A sushi bar in the middle of downtown Cotati--Shige Sushi (8235 Old Redwood Highway, Cotati, CA 94931 (707) 795-9753)--has recently given me a free hand to curate small art shows on one wall of the restaurant. I've just finished organizing the first show and designing announcements for it--The Art of Collage--which will run from December 6, 2014 to January 31, 2015. There will be a meet-the-artists reception from around 7:00PM on Wednesday, December 17. The show includes collage works by Claude Smith, Sherry Parker and me. Claude's work, using Xerox transfer printing and other monoprinting techniques is bold and gestural in some instances, cryptically narrative in others, but always arresting. Sherry Parker's collages, mostly using found pictorial elements, combine whimsy, the surreal, and an exquisite design sense. I'm looking forward to sharing the work of these outstanding artists with the community and to organizing future shows for the new Art Wall at Shige Sushi.


Rain: More Rain (December 2, 2014)

More rain overnight and today so far, as predicted. There was a new 0.75 inches in the rain gauge when I checked it this morning, but it's rained more since then. I hope it keeps going. It looks like this  group of storms will at least bring us up to normal for the current rain year, which began on July 1, 2014 and ends on June 30 2015. The average for this date (December 2) historically is 6.02 inches in Santa Rosa. The more the merrier, though, as we have a substantial cumulative deficit from the past couple of years when rainfall was markedly lower than average.

[Update: As of the evening of the 3rd, we had received 1.5 inches of new rain since reporting the 0.75 inches mentioned above, so a total of 2.25 inches of new rain. That brings our total for the year as of today to 7.35 inches--slightly above average now for the first time this rain year.]
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