Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Art I'm Looking At: A Drawing by Aaron

I was living in Japan in the spring of 1985. Mike, a former college roommate, was working at the American Pavilion at Expo '85 in Tsukuba, just north of Tokyo (officially known as The International Exposition, Tsukuba, Japan, 1985), a world's fair with a focus on science and technology. I took an opportunity to visit Mike, staying a night at his lodgings. He showed me his fat diplomatic passport. He told me about the vetting he had been through. Apparently, someone in the State Department thought it wise to interview some of his grade school classmates. What did they want to know? Maybe make ate paste as a child and was not to be trusted? He was the only member of the US delegation not a Mormon, I learned. Mormons don't get drunk. They're a safe bet for international duty. With delegations from all over the world at hand, the atmosphere was party-like. After hours, the Mormons seemed keenly focused on finding sex partners. Some of Mike's friends had made plans to go out for a beer with men from the Swedish delegation. No sex was involved, but I can say "Jag förstår inte svenska" as a result of tagging along that evening ("I don't understand Swedish"). My pronunciation was praised.

Being a stamp collector, I was eager to get an Expo cancellation for the stamp issued to commemorate the event. I stood in line. The Japanese still have an interest in stamps far beyond anything I've ever seen here. The country still produces beautiful stamps. Collectors stand in line when new issues appear. Stamps in the US are now cheap stickers. The thrill is gone. Once US stamps were gems of good design and often exquisite miniature engravings on fine paper. The thrill is gone.

At the American pavilion I overheard Japanese visitors muttering about how the US had come down in the world. They were unimpressed by the drab, technical displays. The State Department seemed to have paid more attention to vetting delegates than to impressing the locals. The Japanese took a world's fair seriously. The Reagan administration didn't. The Japanese wanted spectacle. They wanted talking robots and cars that drove themselves. They wanted skinny "companions" in bathing suits commenting on glitzy displays. What they got at the American pavilion was rather dry. One corner featured an optical character reader scanning book pages. Another featured Aaron. Aaron was mostly a plotter, about three feet wide and four feet long, that drew pictures. Aaron wasn't flashy. Toshiba had installed a billboard-sized multi-color plotter in front of its corporate pavilion. The Toshiba plotter drew crowds of people looking up, watching the moving plotter arms, impressed by the size and the color, but the Toshiba machine simply regurgitated pre-programmed images—mostly images promoting Toshiba.

I fell in love with Aaron almost immediately. He wasn't big and he drew in black and white. He may not have impressed most visitors to the American Pavilion, but Aaron did something special. He didn't simply reproduce images fed from a computer. The real Aaron was a computer program that controlled a plotter using algorithms to create novel images—each one unique. Aaron could draw faces and figures and rocks and leaves. Aaron liked to put figures in leafy, rocky landscapes. Aaron knew that figures and objects in the foreground seem to overlap picture elements further away. Aaron had a rudimentary sense of depth. Aaron had a distinctive angular, linear style. Aaron was an early example of truly creative artificial intelligence. He was about 13 years old when I met him. His creator, Dr. Harold Cohen, later gave Aaron the ability to color his drawings, but, in 1985, Aaron had not yet discovered color.

I coveted one of Aaron's drawings, and I came home with one. Mike secured one for me and even got Dr. Cohen to sign it (above). It's dated March 13, 1985, four days before the Expo officially opened, on March 17. I hadn't seen the drawing in many years when I came upon it today in the course of reorganizing my studio. Perhaps it's time to get Aaron's handiwork framed?

Monday, August 22, 2016

Miscellaneous: A Photograph that Sums Up the Sonoma/Napa County Experience

In the past, when people have asked me what life is like in Sonoma County, I've tried to explain the dichotomy between the wealth here—much of it generated by the wine industry—and the rural character that lingers. I've called Sonoma County the land of Porsches and pick-ups. Recently, in Napa, I came across this parked Mercedes in front of an upscale hotel, fully loaded with hay. It seemed to sum up the same idea nicely.

Serendipitous Art: Chain Link Fence Shadow (August 20, 2016)

The shadow of a chain link fence cast on a white-washed store window looked like art to me. Unintended art, serendipitous art.

For more unintended art, see my blog Serendipitous Art.

Books I'm Reading: How to Write About Contemporary Art

The lessons author Gilda Williams offers in her concise treatise on good art writing How to Write About Contemporary Art (Thames & Hudson, 2014) could apply to writing about most anything, not only contemporary art. She attributes the large amount of bad art writing we encounter to a general lack of appreciation for the skills good art writing requires, pointing out that much art writing is assigned to people unprepared to handle it, and often assigned to such people because those assigning the task assume anyone can write about art well.

She first poses an important question: Why write about art at all? She answers by pointing out that there are many different types of art writing—writing for different purposes and different audiences that require different approaches. The main divide she suggests is between writing that explains and writing that evaluates. In the former category she includes news articles, museum wall captions, web collection articles, press releases, and auction catalog entries. In the latter, she includes academic assignments, exhibition and book reviews, op-ed journalism, magazine articles, catalogue essays, and grant, exhibition, or book proposals, while acknowledging that much art writing today straddles the two realms. In all art writing she suggests the first, perhaps most important, rule is to "...attempt, sincerely, to render artwork more meaningful, more enjoyable, attaching 'something more and better' to art and life than without it" (the interior quote using the words of New Yorker senior critic Peter Schjeldahl).

More specifically, she suggests good art writing succeeds at three things: 1) telling the reader what the art is (what it looks like); 2) telling the reader what the art might mean; and 3) telling the reader why it might matter to the world at large. Much of the text deals with explaining how to achieve these three goals, while substantiating positions with facts and avoiding jargon and vagueness—particularly the vagueness caused by explaining one abstract concept with another equally abstract one, the hallmark of much pretentious, incomprehensible art writing.

The ideas are clearly presented and illustrated with many examples. While much of what Williams writes will be familiar to seasoned writers, it never hurts to be reminded of what makes good writing good. I suspect this book will be useful to anyone who regularly engages in critical writing about any kind of creative pursuit.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Books I'm Reading: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

Mary Roach is something of a national treasure. She has a gift for looking a subject in the eye, not flinching, and then writing about it forthrightly. She has an infectious curiosity, a sharp eye for irony, and a witty style that manages to make difficult subjects funny. She happily charges in where most will only tiptoe. It's a shame more people aren't as openly and honestly inquisitive (and eager to share) as Mary Roach.

I immensely enjoyed her book Stiff (2003), which examines human corpses—or, as that book's subtitle puts it, "the curious lives of human cadavers." Bonk, which looks at the history of the science of sex (mostly in the modern era, but with quick looks back in time here and there) promised to be equally entertaining. It didn't disappoint. Although Roach digresses in footnotes a little more than seems prudent sometimes, she paints some indelible pictures. Some of these are fun, such as her description of a day visiting a group of Danish hog farmers that artificially inseminate pigs (trying to boost productivity by making things more pleasurable for the sows). Other vignettes are not for the squeamish—notably the vivid tale of Dr. Geng-Long Hsu performing radical penile surgery at his Microsurgical Potency Reconstruction and Research Center, in Taipei. On the whole, though, an entertaining romp through the world of research on sex.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Art I'm Making: Two New Collages--Untitled Collage No. 147 (Santa Rosa) and Untitled Collage No. 149 (Santa Rosa)

Two recent collages, one very small, the other a little larger. These are numbers 147 (top) and 149 in my ongoing series of untitled collages made in Santa Rosa. (I haven't posted No. 148 because I've been unable to create a good image of it. It doesn't scan or photograph well.)

Untitled Collage No. 147 (Santa Rosa). June 26, 2016. Acrylic on paper, acrylic monoprint, collage. Image size: 9.5 x 10.5cm (3.7 x 4.1in). Matted to 11 x 14 inches. Signed and dated on reverse. Signed on the mat.

Untitled Collage No. 149 (Santa Rosa). July 14, 2016. Acrylic on paper, acrylic monoprint, fragment of an automatic drawing by a doodlebot, collage. Image size: 14.2 x 15.9cm (5.6 x 6.3 inches). Matted to 16 x 20 inches. Signed and dated on reverse. Signed on the mat.

Click on the image for a larger view. For more of my collage work, visit my collage site at http://ctalcroft.wix.com/collage-site.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Cocktail Glass Collection: Pasquini's, Live Oak, CA

On a recent short jaunt up towards Sacramento and Redding I passed through Yuba City. On the outskirts of the town I saw this neon cocktail glass sign at Pasquini's. This one is fairly simple, but the glass is a shape I've never seen before, suggesting it was custom made. Although I seemed to be in Yuba City, the Pasquini's website gives the address as 6241 Highway 99, Live Oak, CA 95953.

For more, use the "Cocktail Glass Collection" tab at right.


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Books I'm Reading: The Girl With The Gallery

I had never heard of Edith Gregor Halpert before reading Lindsay Pollock's biography, The Girl with the Gallery (Public Affairs, 2006). Halpert appears to have played an important role in creating the market for modern American art at a time when collector and museum money in the US was focused squarely on European art. She was instrumental in supporting the early careers of several important artists, including Stuart Davis, Ben Shahn, Arthur Dove, and Charles Sheeler. She played a key role in bringing American folk art to the attention of collectors and museums. She was the only dealer the notoriously difficult Alfred Stieglitz trusted to act as his agent in selling the work of such artists as John Marin and Georgia O'Keefe. She was the trusted advisor of wealthy patrons such as Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, whose private collections later augmented important museum collections. She championed black artists long before it was fashionable. She also chose to open her gallery in Greenwich village at a time when virtually no galleries existed there (1926).  Halpert should be better known (and perhaps she is better known because of this book, now ten years old).

There is much here about the day to day business of selling art. Halpert appears to have been an obsessive record-keeper. Mining the material Halpert left behind, Pollock has drawn a very detailed picture of Halpert's dealings with the artists she supported, with the collectors she cultivated, and with rival dealers. The picture of Halpert that emerges is of a determined and effective saleswoman and a crack organizer. Although there is probably more detail here than the average reader will care to read through, anyone with a particular interest in 20th century American art is likely to find The Girl with the Gallery well worth the time.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Art I'm Looking At: Joey Enos Sculpture at Hammerfriar Gallery, Healdsburg

A new show at Hammerfriar Gallery, in Healdsburg, is something of a departure from the more sophisticated fare usually on display there (the just-ended show of photography by Elizabeth Sunday was superb). The gallery is now showing sculpture by Joey Enos, who works in what is essentially painted, plastic-covered styrofoam. The sculptures (some free-standing, some fairly flat and wall-hung) are visually appealing; they are brightly colored, playful, and light-hearted. They evoke cartoons, theme park scenery, or the kind of theater set that aims to create a stylized façade rather than to imitate reality. Enos carves styrofoam to look like wood—not real wood but cartoon illustrations of wood—and so the "wood" is twice removed from actual wood. There are oversized, bent nails (these, too made of carved foam) in some pieces that look like something Wiley E. Coyote might have hastily hammered into a contraption for catching the Roadrunner. Other sculptures feature large "bolts." One piece is a large slice of Swiss cheese suspended by chains within a simple "wood" frame. Other works are a little more complex, totem-like, and resembling driftwood sculptures—albeit garishly painted ones.

The paint is actually pigmented resin sprayed onto the styrofoam forms, a process the artist subcontracts to a spraying plant. The effect is flat and un-nuanced. While Enos designs these pieces and oversees their production, a substantial portion of their creation is outsourced. There is no "hand of the artist" to see here and what there is to see is quickly absorbed. The sculptures are fun to look at, perhaps, and, having talked with the artist at the opening reception, I appreciate that he is in earnest, but I wonder if these works are capable of sustaining long interest?  

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Cocktail Glass Collection: West House Cocktail Lounge, Roseville, CA

On a recent trip up north as far as Redding, California, I spied this neon cocktail glass sign in front of the West House Cocktail Lounge, at the corner of Atlantic St. and Washington Blvd., in Roseville, California. I don't think I've ever seen one like this before--with the glass hanging down from the bottom.

For more, use the "Cocktail Glass Collection" tab at right.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Art I'm Looking At: The New SF MOMA--First impressions (July 9, 2016)

Visiting the newly re-opened, newly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is daunting. I spent a tiring four hours there last week and didn't even see any of the new, upper floors. I found the place a little disorienting, a little cold, a little unwelcoming.  I was disappointed, but maybe subsequent, longer visits will change my opinion. The thing is, at $25 a visit, the place is now quite expensive. Parking at the nearby Moscone Center Parking Garage cost $20.50. Lunch at the new café wasn't especially cheap (and seating was cramped--entirely inadequate given the number of people, and this was on a Wednesday). Sadly, it's not a set-up that will allow me easily to make the many visits seeing the place will require*.

The new Howard St. entrance seemed little used, not very welcoming from the outside, and cramped inside, as it's nearly entirely filled by Richard Serra's 2006 sculpture Sequence. I like the sculpture itself. Its surfaces sustain long attention. Walking through the spaces between its curving walls is evocative of walking through a cave or a narrow, high-walled canyon. The latter effect is enhanced by the rust-brown color of the walls, suggestive of the iron-red rocks in the Southwest that form slot canyons. Still, its position here seems a little forced: feeling a bit claustrophobic inside the piece seems right, feeling claustrophobic in the space around it just feels uncomfortable. Perhaps that was intended? A wall of bleacher-like wood seating gives a view of the sculpture from a less overwhelming perspective, but, standing next to it you can't see the room you're in.

The main lobby is sort of a gutted version of the old lobby. The striped, black stone staircase is gone (sadly) and so are the ticket desks with people who used to greet you as you came in (ditto). Entry is now through a bank of ticket sales desks on the second floor in a very large room that seems half empty and therefore much too big for its purpose--and, if I had to sum up the new SFMOMA experience in a few words, that would do nicely: the place seems much too big for its purpose.



One of the first rooms I wandered into shows a selection of modern British sculpture (above). A large, mostly empty room, it's a case in point. One wall was entirely blank save for a couple of labels for sculptures so far away from the pieces they describe that they seemed to have been placed deliberately to annoy. The wall might have made a good backdrop, but it goes virtually unused. Other pieces are placed in front of windows that create a great deal of "noise." Shown here with a noisy backdrop is Henry Moore's Oval with Points (Bronze, 1967-68); the black upright bar in the photo is part of the window frame, not the sculpture. The wood floors in this and other galleries, while attractive, were distracting as well. It's fashionable to criticize "the white cube," but all-neutral backdrops do at least focus attention on the art.

The wall labels were oddly placed in most of the galleries I visited. Some are 10-12 feet away from the artworks they accompany. Often it's difficult to know what refers to what. The result is a lot of unnecessary and repetitive walking. I was reminded of the ludicrous distances between venues in Las Vegas (although labels were more conventionally placed in the photography galleries, alongside the images they describe).

No one likes a gallery that feels overcrowded, but many of the spaces I walked through felt underused. Perhaps museum planners have left a lot of space anticipating new arrivals? Oddly, an otherwise engaging display of chairs made from novel materials was given barely enough room to breathe (photo). On the whole, the gallery layout didn't make a lot of sense to me. There seems to be no logical path through the spaces. Hence the feeling of disorientation and fatigue I felt. Signs for cafés and restrooms are so small and infrequent that they are virtually useless. Signs throughout the spaces mark work as part of the "Campaign for Art," but, unless you already know the details of the campaign, these signs are simply puzzling. Nowhere is the campaign explained (apparently, it was a 2009-2015 drive to solicit donations of modern and contemporary art that added more than 3,000 pieces to the collection from more than 200 donors; pieces labeled "Campaign for Art" came into the collection this way). I had to ask and then do a Google search after I got home.

It may sound petty to point it out, but I found the guards distracting too. Guards wear plain dark trousers, white shirts, and dark jackets with no tie. They don't wear conspicuous badges. There are no identifying marks on the jackets. Without ties and because the clothes were often (though not always) ill-fitting, the guards sometimes looked a bit slovenly. At times it was hard to be sure who the guards were. The "uniforms" they wear fail in the single most important thing a uniform is supposed to do: clearly identify a member of the team. Young people in red T-shirts stationed here and there as guides seemed more alert and better informed.

Having said all this, there is a lot worth seeing. The museum has a very deep collection of works by Ellsworth Kelly now (shown here above is his Cité; oil on wood, 1951). There are five or six pieces by Martin Puryear, one of my favorite modern sculptors (although it's a shame there's nothing by Eduardo Chillida, another favorite--at least that I saw). There's an entire room of Calder mobiles, with several of his large stabiles placed in adjacent outdoor spaces. There are multiple strong pieces by Cy Twombly, Brice Marden, and Canadian painter Agnes Martin. There is a large collection of drawings byJoseph Beuys. A large show of graphic design from the museum's permanent collection is now on display.

Photography is much better represented than it used to be; particularly interesting were selections from Jim Goldberg's Rich and Poor series (1977-1985, pictured here is Carol Green Wilson, from among these); a large group of late Diane Arbus works; a nearly complete set of Nicholas Nixon's well known The Brown Sisters series (the 1975 to 2014 images) interestingly paired with Idris Kahn's 2004 every ...Nicholas Nixon's Brown Series (below), which is a layered montage of each of the series images; and historical photographs including examples of many different early processes. Among these, I particularly enjoyed seeing examples of Wilson Alwyn Bentley's Snowflake prints done on collodion printing-out paper** (bottom of page).


And, as I've said, I didn't even make it into the newly added spaces above the 5th floor or go through sections that appear to feature the core of the collection on display before the expansion. So, yes, I will be going back, but it seems to me there's some room for improvement here.

*Since writing this, I decided to become a member. For $100, an individual membership will ultimately be cheaper than paying for admission multiple times, at least in the first year, as it will allow many visits for two people.

**Bentley's snowflake photographs were taken with a microscope-mounted camera. Bentley is often credited with making the first snowflake micrographs, although German researcher Dr. Johann Heinrich Flögel (1834-1918) is known to have photographed a snowflake on February 1, 1879, about six years earlier than Bentley's first such photograph, on January 15, 1885. Still, Bentley went on to take thousands of snowflake photos over many years and he is most closely associated with snowflake photography and with popularizing the idea that every snowflake is unique. The collodion printing-out paper process is one of a number that use a printing-out paper—a sensitized paper that forms an image when exposed to ultraviolet light. No darkroom is required because the image is not developed in the sense we think of today—in a chemical bath of some kind. These processes involve contact printing in sunlight (or today commonly with an artificial UV light source). "Printing out" processes are so called because the image gradually appears on the paper with exposure, the image printing out as you watch. Other examples of printing-out processes include the salted paper, albumen, gelatino-chloride, and collodio-chloride processes.


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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Miscellaneous: Strange Dream (July 6, 2016)

So, I'm in a large bright room somewhere, like a library, but no one much is in it. I'm in a chair pulled up to a table where Hillary Clinton sits a little in front of me in a bright pink pantsuit sort of wedged between her and the man seated next to her, looking over their shoulders from behind--or trying to. I'm like an interpreter at a summit meeting. I'm there, but somehow not quite part of the proceedings. Seated at the table are two others, experts of some kind, and an "applicant." The applicant is reading poetry and Hillary and the two experts are judging the poetry. The applicant speaks in a heavy New York accent, so heavy I can understand only about a third of what he's saying, although I myself was born in New York and feel like I ought to be able to catch what he's saying. He drones on. A mosquito is buzzing around Hillary's back, right in front of me. I tell her not to move so I can squash the mosquito but she brushes me away, concentrating on the poetry she's listening to. When I'm watching the little mosquito, the room seems dark. When watching the poetry conference it seems bright. I try again to squash the mosquito against the pink fabric of Hillary's side, but it slips away. The man reading the poetry reminds me of William F. Buckley Jr. He's middle-aged, a little hunched over, but very sure of himself. The accent is wrong, but he looks like William F. Buckley Jr. He's wearing a disheveled raincoat, like the one Colombo always wore. Hillary is saying the poem is racist, which is the first clue of its content for me, unable to understand much of what he's been saying. One of the experts praises the poem saying at least it's forthrightly racist. As Hillary and the experts discuss whether the poem is racist, I reach between Hillary and the man beside her from my position a little behind them, half standing up, and I take the poem from the hand of the poetry reader. The writing is as hard to read as the spoken words were to understand, but it's beautiful. The writing is English, but it looks Asian at the same time, written with a brush perhaps or a thick marker. I remark that it looks like calligraphy and how beautiful it is, holding the paper up so everyone can see it, then turning it 90 degrees, so the script is vertical, to enhance the calligraphic effect I'm trying to suggest. And then I'm on a carpeted floor--the kind of carpet you see in a public building rather than a home, with very short pile, muted colors, not very welcoming, but looking like it will stand up under heavy traffic. I'm kneeling and someone has brought out an inkstone and a large calligraphy brush and I'm saying to myself "I studied calligraphy in Japan. I can show them." Mentally I'm writing the character "kotobuki" in a cursive script. The inkstone is on the floor and I'm dipping the brush in and trying to form the tip of the brush into a nice point before I start writing, saying to the people that have now gathered around me that next time they use the brush they must form it into a point after they're finished, after rinsing it, and then let it dry that way. The brush seems to be made of just-sheared lambswool--not very absorbent, intractable--rather than the fine squirrel hair it ought to be made of. The inkstone and paper are near me on the floor, but annoyingly close to the foot of a chair that's in the way. Then an elderly man walks up, wearing neatly creased, vaguely mustard-colored trousers (the color of Grey Poupon, not French's). I ignore him at first, but then, struggling to get the long, shaggy brush properly loaded with ink that's much too thin to write with and worrying about the sheet of paper provided that's much too small to write on with such a big brush (it's a 5-inch square piece of translucent rice paper that, size-wise, would be better suited to origami), I defer to the old man who has a long white beard, looking like one of those Chinese scholars you see depicted on scrolls in Asian art museums.....

Strange dream I had last night.

With apologies to the owner of the photograph I've used. I was unable to find an appropriate credit.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Art I'm Making: Untitled Collage No. 146 (Santa Rosa)

Another new collage. Untitled Collage No. 146 (Santa Rosa). June 20, 2016. Acrylic on paper, acrylic monoprint. 17.6 x 19cm (7 x 7.5in). Matted to 16 x 20 inches. Signed and dated on reverse. Signed on the mat.

Click on the image for a larger view. For more of my collage work, visit my collage site at http://ctalcroft.wix.com/collage-site.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Art I'm Making: Untitled Collage No. 145 (Santa Rosa)

My latest collage--another study in green with a few blue accents. This is Untitled Collage No. 145 (Santa Rosa). June 15, 2016. Acrylic on paper, acrylic monoprint, pastel. 21 x 20.8cm (8.25 x 8.2 inches).

Matted to 16 x 20 inches. Signed and dated on reverse. Signed on the mat.

Click on the image for a larger view. For more of my collage work, visit my collage site at http://ctalcroft.wix.com/collage-site.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Books I'm Reading: The Invisible Century

Richard Panek's The Invisible Century (Penguin, 2004) is a slim volume that makes some moderately obvious points, yet it makes them clearly and in lucid prose. The book looks at the modern period through brief biographies of Einstein and Freud—the former at the forefront of a transition in scientific thinking from curiosity about the nature of matter and life toward curiosity about aspects of the universe we cannot see, the latter spearheading a movement in philosophy directed at attempting to answer questions about the nature of the unconscious. An interesting read.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Art I'm Making: Untitled Collage No. 144 (Santa Rosa)

A new collage. Not quite so new, but the most recent piece I've finished. Art-making has been on the back burner the past few weeks, pre-empted by a two-week trip interpreting for a Japanese film crew in the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley area and then an unusually busy work (translation) schedule.

This is Untitled Collage No. 144 (Santa Rosa). May 14, 2016. Acrylic on paper, acrylic monoprint, found paper (artist's trash), pastel, collage. 13.8 x 9.8 inches. Matted to 24 x 20 inches. Signed and dated on reverse. Signed on the mat. Click on the image for a larger view. For more of my collage work, visit my collage site at http://ctalcroft.wix.com/collage-site.

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Cocktail Glass Collection: The Sultana Bar, Williams Arizona

On my recent trip to Arizona, I had little time to casually photograph things that interested me along the way, but I did snap this view of the neon cocktail glass sign in front of the Sultana Bar, in Williams, Arizona. Excuse me, the world-famous Sultana Bar.

For more, use the "Cocktail Glass Collection" tab at right.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Music I'm Listening to: Haley Reinhart (June 3, 2016)

Last night. Haley Reinhart at the intimate (and slightly decrepit) Mystic Theatre, in Petaluma. First stop on the 2016 Better Tour, promoting her new CD "Better." I love her voice when she sings with the Postmodern Jukebox  people. This was more pop/rock in style (the first "rock concert" I've been to since probably Joni Mitchell, 1974 or so), but still fun. She did, at least, sing the gum commercial Elvis song that so nicely shows off her voice—"Can't Help Falling in Love."

Friday, June 3, 2016

On the Road: Sedona to Las Vegas (May 25, 2016–May 27, 2016)




I left Monument Valley on the 25th and headed for Sedona, Arizona, one of those odd places that have almost completely lost their identity to tourism. Sedona is in an undeniably beautiful setting. The red rock formations are impressive, even if not as big as those in Monument Valley and not so impressively set off by empty space, and I imagine the town has its charms, but virtually the entirety of the main street (and there is only one main street) is bad restaurants and tourist shops catering to those who come for the "spiritual energy" the place is supposed to exude. There are psychics and fortune tellers, yoga and meditation shops, and many stores selling rocks, minerals, and crystals—rocks, minerals, and crystals all laid out with tags describing their supposed powers. Practically none of these have any connection to Sedona geologically speaking. Inconveniently, Sedona is mostly red sandstone, which doesn't seem to possess much of interest to the spiritually minded. The minerals come from Argentina, South Africa, Brazil.... The hotel proprietor came from India, his office reeked amiably of curry. The place reminded me of Lourdes, in France. One thing I did like about Sedona is that all the intersections are roundabouts, which is great.

I did have the opportunity to see Sedona from the air, however, in a hot air balloon, which was a pleasure. It had been many years since my last balloon ride. The valleys around Sedona were set off in the early morning light by smoke from a forest fire burning to the north of the town. In places you could see smoke flowing over the hills and down into the low spots. Later in the day, I visited the Chapel of the Holy Cross, graciously shown around by Father Kieran, who is in charge of the place. Built in 1956, it's a modern piece of architecture but it sits comfortably in its niche in the rocks and offers excellent views over the town of Sedona and the surrounding rock formations, including excellent distant views of Cathedral Rock, Courthouse Butte, and Bell Rock.

On the morning of the 27th I headed back toward Las Vegas, my starting point on this trip, which was a working trip, interpreting for a small Japanese film crew getting footage for a number of TV programs to air later in the year. At Peach Springs, on the way back, you can access the only drivable road down to the Colorado River within the Grand Canyon. It's a bumpy, unpaved 19 miles, part of the way through water, but it was not as bad as people lead you to believe, at least at this time of year, ahead of seasonal rains, which seem to come mostly in July.


From the perspective of bird-watching, the trip was rather disappointing. I had few opportunities to get anything more than fleeting glances at anything. The Common Raven seems to be the most common bird. It's easy to see why ravens figure prominently in so many folk tales and in native lore of the area. Otherwise, I noticed a lot of House Sparrows and House Finches. Other birds included Great-tailed Grackles,  Scrub-jays, and Western Tanagers. At Desert View, in Grand Canyon National Park, I came across a flock of Chipping Sparrows, which  are fairly uncommon at home. In the canyon itself, there were many Violet-green Swallows and White-Throated Swifts. The only new birds I saw were a variant of the Dark-eyed Junco I've never seen before, also at Grand Canyon, either the Red-backed or Grey-headed variant—notably pale grey all over with black around the eye and a rufous patch at the rump—and the Juniper Titmouse (Baeolophus ridgwayi), at Airport Mesa, in Sedona. The Juniper Titmouse, a life bird for me, looks almost identical to our Oak Titmouse (Baeolophus inornatus), but I noticed its vocalizations were different. Some day I'd like to revisit the area as a birder.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Art I'm Looking At: Sherry Parker—Collage Work on The Art Wall at Shige Sushi (May 31-July 31, 2016)

For readers in the San Francisco Bay area, I'm pleased to announce the next show on The Art Wall at Shige Sushi, in downtown Cotati will feature the surreal collage work of Sherry Parker. The show, opening Tuesday, May 31, will run through the end of July.

Opening reception the following Monday, June 6 (5:30-7:30PM). Come meet Sherry, have a glass of wine, see friends, enjoy the work. Aside from the reception, art work on The Art Wall at Shige Sushi is viewable during regular restaurant hours. Shige Sushi is at 8235 Old Redwood Highway, Cotati, CA 94931. More information about The Art Wall at Shige Sushi.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

On the Road: Monument Valley (May 23-May 24, 2016)

Monument Valley is visible from many miles away. It takes a surprisingly long time to reach the valley after the famous rocks begin to appear on the horizon. A large visitor center overlooks the most famous of the formations, formations familiar to anyone who has seen a few classic westerns. Guide companies hang out near the visitor's center. Bernard, my guide, was a big Navajo man who at first seemed taciturn but turned out to be a good talker with a sense of humor. There's a road through the valley that allows a self-guided tour, but traveling with a guide gives you access to the back roads. Bernard showed me some of his favorite back country views, a natural bandshell in which he played flute and drum, and a wall with petroglyphs left by occupants that pre-date the Navajo, who began to occupy the valley around 800 years ago. The petroglyphs, obliquely lit by bright sun, were almost invisible until Bernard raised an arm against the stone walls to create a shadow.

The natural amphitheater mentioned above is a consequence of the sandstone's tendency to form domed shapes that erode away to leave behind concave spaces, these eventually turning into arches if erosion occurs on both sides of the dome. In some places there were large curved chunks of fallen rock that looked remarkably like giant reddish-brown seashells.

I ended up staying overnight in the valley, sleeping on the dirt floor of a traditional Navajo hogan, a round yurt-like dwelling built of cedar logs chinked with bark and sealed with mud. The stars were beautiful despite a bright, nearly full moon that gave the monuments an eery quality after dark.

The next morning, I got up early to watch the sun rise behind the spire known as "The Totem Pole," although that seems incongruous, as the Navajo don't make totem poles. The Totem Pole stands alone next to a cluster of similar tall, thin rocks that Bernard referred to as yei' bi' che, which appears to be the Navajo word for the deities the Hopi and others call kachinas. The sunrise behind these rocks has been photographed so often that it's become a cliché. It's used on the cover of the AAA guide to the region I picked up before leaving, but it's an impressive view nevertheless.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

On the Road: Lake Powell (May 22)

The road out of Grand Canyon north to Page skirts the Little Colorado River Gorge, which cuts through a plateau dotted with green sage bushes and Mormon tea. I noticed the people here never seem to say "the Grand Canyon" but only "Grand Canyon." I wonder why.

I spent the entirety of May 22 in the vicinity of Page, Arizona, making an early visit to the overlook at Horseshoe Bend, a dramatic curve cut through sandstone by the Colorado River just outside Page. A short walk takes you from the parking lot to a ragged outcropping of tawny rock that gives a view of the river channel several hundred feet below. A local resident told me three to five people fall to their death from the unprotected overlook each year, mostly trying to take pictures of themselves too close to the edge. As I was leaving, a bus load of elderly Japanese sightseers arrived for a look, crouching far too close to the edge for my comfort. It was hard to watch. The view is impressive, though.

I then headed out for a day on Lake Powell, motoring into Padre Bay, which gives panoramic views of the lake and the dramatic rock formations, once canyon walls, that form its perimeter. The lake, like Lake Mead to the west, is artificial, created by the Glen Canyon Dam, built between 1957 and 1963, which blocks the flow of the Colorado River here. The lake is about 180 miles long and is said to have more shoreline than the US West Coast. Before the dam was built, the now-filled canyon must have looked much like Grand Canyon.

Eventually I arrived at Rainbow Bridge, about two hours north of the marina near Horseshoe Bend that was my starting point. From the landing near the bridge it's a mile walk into a side canyon before the arch appears. This is sacred ground to the Navajo who, according to my guide, view natural arches as gives from the gods, gifts useful for crossing streams, fleeing flash floods, and escaping from enemies.

The stone that forms Rainbow Bridge is part of the redder formation known as the Navajo sandstone. The same rock is visible in parts of Grand Canyon, in Monument Valley, which straddles the Arizona/Utah border, and in Arches National Park, further into Southern Utah.

Something of a rock hound as a child, I know a thing or two about how rocks fracture. Obsidian perhaps has the most obvious conchoidal fracture among rocks that most people know, but the Navajo Sandstone, too, fractures in a way that leaves behind concentric curves. Many of the formations have a rounded quality. Natural arches form when the inner portion of a conchoidal fracture face erodes away more quickly than the rock above it. But the geology here is complex. There are many different layers of stone, including natural conglomerates, sandstones, and limestones. Some surfaces are pale, others redder, reflecting different amounts of iron oxide present. Some are smooth, some rough. Others are fractured and eroded into what look like rows of stacked pillows. Some are reminiscent of Chinese landscape paintings in ink, others of Egyptian statuary carved into the rocks. In several places I was reminded of photos I've seen of Egyptian sites near the lake created by the Aswan High Dam.




Friday, May 20, 2016

On the Road: The Grand Canyon (May 20, 2016)


On the road, truly. No time to write much today. Suffice it to say that the Grand Canyon is as beautiful as they say it is. Monumental in scale and constantly changing in aspect as clouds pass over and the light changes.

Here I post views from the easily accessible rim trail along the south canyon rim The third of these (left) is a view from Pima Point where I had gone to watch the sunset. The rock faces change color dramatically as the sun drops below the opposite canyon rim. About an hour before sunset, a bank of heavy clouds rolled in, however, blocking the sun and the light display. On the opposite side of the sky a nearly full moon rose. I'll be up at 4:00AM tomorrow to try for sunrise over the canyon.


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