Sunday, November 18, 2007

Drawn to Ambiguous Territory

These days I am finding myself in ambiguous territory. It seems I have treadmill syndrome, running and running and yet not moving very far toward my goals in life. Working at my NotArt Job, I find I make just enough to not quite cover my expenses each month--this is in part because several months ago I cut back to 90% time so I would have more time to work on my art career. However, the art career thing feels somewhat stalled, largely because my current artistic interests involve a certain level of expenditure. I have been working in video for the last couple of years, but am finding I also miss photography and want to go back to it, but film and development and paper and darkroom rentals can add up to pretty hefty expenses. I'd like to explore sound art recording and the notion of definitions of place (and deeper definitions of "locality," but that's a different post) through sound, but ... that requires an initial expense if I do it the way I'd like to. And I'm also very excited about the notion of geocaching as a way to spread art around and create a different culture around "value," but that also requires an initial expense.

But I have to keep creating, so I think I may take up drawing.

There is a lot that is appealing about drawing. One, it can be made extremely portable; a tiny sketch pad and pencils can go almost anywhere with one. Two, one can put as much or as little time into it as one might have or be inclined to invest. The "quick sketch" can be as interesting for both viewer and artist as the "detailed drawing." Three, the expense is minimal. If the backs of napkins and miscellaneous envelopes were good enough for Picasso, I'm pretty sure they're good enough for me.

This is more interesting than it might initially sound for two reasons. One, it would be totally experimental as I have NO formal training in drawing at all. Any work I produced would be, er, blissfully free from the strictures of knowledge of technique.

Two, as far as I know, I have absolutely no talent for drawing, despite the enthusiastic pronouncements of my second-grade teacher over my cardboard-and-crayon rendering of Eeyore for the classroom decoration for Parents' Night some 40 years ago. But at the same time, I'm a doodler--I can do a passable flower, a reasonable starburst, and a cutish cartoony wide-eyed pony. So I'm wondering if I can morph a medium to fit the talent I have (i.e., none).

This kind of thing might happen more than I'm aware. One frequently encounters the old saws about how talent is overrated, success is 80% perspiration and 20% inspiration, etc., but I've never consciously taken on a medium in which I knew I sucked. I wonder, if after proving himself at Glasgow as a meticulous "serious" painter, this is how David Shrigley stumbled upon his hallmark style? Or if Picasso elected to follow an unusual approach to sculpture because he actually found the idea of realism too annoying?

There, it is decided. I shall endeavor to draw. I will start small; one drawing per week. I will, in a gesture of fearlessness, post them here. Look for something shortly.

Monday, October 29, 2007

... and Now We Been Vandalized. By a Moron. Cool.

I arrived at my studio this weekend to find some miscellaneous dumbass had found it necessary to scribble some kind of illegible tag-thing across its big white double doors. Apparently this person is an amateur and has not yet learned the tricks to stealing spray paint from the hardware store, because the marks appeared to have been made with a red crayon or china marker or something of that sort--I was able to get much of it off just with Formula 409 and elbow grease and to reduce it to a faded pink illegible tag-thing, and the nice guy who manages the property is going to paint the rest of it into oblivion in a few days. So it's really more of an irritation that is going to disappear fairly smoothly without much effort from me, yet I'm still bugged.

Why am I bugged? Well, two things. The first is the ironic notion that I moved to this space from another space that was half the price, because my old space felt rather unsafe, yet nothing negative EVER happened to my building or my property during the three or so years I was in the space. I selected my new space in part because it's only half a mile from my home in a nice residential neighborhood and it felt super-safe ... and since I moved in four months ago, I've been burglarized and vandalized.

Thing two: there are some truly awesome "writers" out there. How come the person who marks up my studio space is some low-rent talentless douchebag whose idea of a tag is a flat illegible unembellished scrawl with a red china marker? I'm an artist, for crying out loud. If someone is going to paint graffitti on my doors, why can't it be one of the cool artistic guys--at least someone who can make those big block letters with all the groovy shading and colors? Ai-yi-yi.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

We Wuz Robbed: the Nature of Value

Well, okay. I'm speaking in the editorial "we." Technically, I was robbed. And to get really specific, I wasn't actually robbed, I was burgled.

That is to say, my art studio was burgled. Someone came into a large open fully-fenced back yard by coming through a large solid wood gate between two houses full of people, came to the back of the lot, went to the back of my studio, took the screen off the rear window, opened the window as wide as it would go, climbed up on a plastic lawn chair and shimmied through. Almost nothing was disturbed. The crazy vine lights I have hanging in front of that window were slightly askew, but not in such a way that the wind couldn't have done it. This slick thief then apparently walked to the front of my studio and turned off the motion-detection security light that shines at my front door. And then ...

... apparently he or she looked around and realized this was perhaps not going to be the haul they had envisioned.

The burglar took exactly two things: a cordless drill and tool set that I paid $40 for at Orchard Supply Hardware, and a nicer Black and Decker cordless drill that had no juice and for which I had lost the charger, making it basically a doorstop. They were both in the kinds of plastic cases that shout "power tools," but their combined value was around $50 tops. Both those cases were missing, and the back door to my studio was unlocked from the inside, where Burglar-person let himself out.

My most valuable possessions--my mounted and framed work, my dress form (her name is Gladys), my little red wagon, my paints and pens and paper, my feathers and beads and fabric, my coffee maker--all these things appeared to be not worth his or her time. Nothing was touched. My tabouret was undisturbed. My flat files were unrifled. My table, littered with assorted treasures, was just as I had left it. Strangely enough, my medium format camera in its bag was sitting on the floor in front of the cabinet I had meant to lock it in a few nights before but didn't because there wasn't room--it too was untouched, which can't be anything but pure luck. So now I'm wondering ... did something happen and interrupt the burglar before he or she could make a thorough search of the room? Was that mystical "Somebody" looking out for me? Or is this really an odd kind of zen koan about the nature of value?

Clearly, my most valuable possessions have strong resonnance for me that they seem not to have had with Mr. or Ms. Burglar. Part of this is emotional. But part of it really is an example of what I like to think of as the artistic spirit; my "valuable" is the random person's "junk."

Or at the least, it's the random person's "un-fence-able."

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Everything old is new again ...

I have found myself over the last few months in "starting over" mode, as if some huge cycle was completing itself and I was rising from the bottom of the ocean to the crest of a wave, finally able to breathe, to feel the sun and see the sky.

And of course, it all has to do with art.

Last month, I went from 100%-time employment to 90%-time, which means I get two days off per month that I can devote to art. Almost immediately on making this arrangement, several other things fell into place, as though the Universe were applauding my commitment. It's too soon to say for sure whether all of the wonderful opportunities I seem to be presented with at this point will come to fruition. But it does seem the universe is in resonnance with me again, or I with it. Anyway, I'll tell you about two of them now.


I regard my "work" as my art, and my "job" as the thing I do during the day that makes the money I need to pay my bills. My "job" has been increasingly frustrating, in large part because I find myself anxious about having to be there when I know I should be focusing on art. I finally decided I was not going to be making innovative work, securing gallery representation, applying for grants and residencies, getting out to see artwork and keeping "playdates" with other artists if I had to continue to spend all day, every day, in front of a computer in an office. My new arrangement enables me to take, roughly, every other Monday off and I am spending that time on art in some form or fashion.

The drawback to 90%-time is, of course, 90% money. But I had so many new project ideas within a week of making this decision that I think it's money well-spent.

On my first 10%-time day, I went out to Pt. Reyes and revisited the trail that was the subject of my year-long walking and photo/video art project "Exposures," which was shown in the "With the Earth" project space at Gallery Route One (Pt. Reyes Station) in 2005; I updated the project with new video and sound work. My next two 10% days were spent moving into (drumroll) my new studio space. That brings us to ...

New Studio!

Almost immediately upon making the commitment to go to 90% time at my job, I found something I'd been looking for for several months: a wonderful studio space, perfectly sized for me at a price I could afford, less than half-a-mile from my house.

My old studio setting was, initially, interesting and edgy, weirdly balanced in its positive and negative qualities. It sat just behind Rosenblum Cellars, which would annually ferment grapes literally outside my front door. The building itself was an all-concrete bunker, formerly the power station for the electric trains that used to run thoughout Oakland; no drill bit was strong enough to carve enough of a hole in those walls to hang something, and they were painted an odd yellow color with blue trim. I had no running water (there was a hose across the parking lot at the back of Rosenblum that produced water smelling strongly of ... something not consumable) and I had to go into yet a third building to use the bathroom. The land it occupied was contaminated enough to be classified as a "brownfield" site, and was downwind from a crematorium. And it was a 20-minute drive from my house, albeit a relatively painless 20-minute drive.

My windows looked out on the Oakland Estuary. When I first moved in, I had an unobstructed view of the estuary and of the enormous container ships being turned around right in front of my window. On an average day, one would encounter a few guys driving forklifts or an occasional hard-hatted worker going by on a bicycle. I called it "Happyland," and I did indeed love it there.

But of course things changed. The construction of the West Coast's largest ship elevator and dry dock facilities 50 feet from my building changed my view to gigantic ships completely wrapped in flapping canvas tarps and the dozens of people in orange vests and hardhats whose job it was to work on them, essentially 7 days per week. The winery workers began to forget that I was there and to sit in front of my windows to take their loud afternoon smoke breaks. A new tenant in an adjacent building appeared and took over ALL of the parking spaces that had been so convenient for me. Heavy equipment was everywhere. And the general chaos level of the place increased by about 1000%. It no longer felt safe and comfortable, especially at night. So it was time to go.

My new studio began its life as a garage, then became a studio apartment, and is now an open space of about 325 square feet; it sits in the shared backyard of two large beautifully-kept Victorian houses in a quiet residential neighborhood. There are lots of windows, it is light and airy and painted a pleasant cool white inside. Immediately outside are trees and birds and an organic vegetable garden and a big back yard; the tenants who use the yard are young families and graduate students and older folks who proudly admit being hippies in the 60s. It has walls that I can hang work on, my own bathroom, and adequate on-street parking. It is a two-minute drive or a 12-minute walk from my home.

I made a lot of great work at Happyland, and I know the texture of the place influenced the work that was made there. The texture is completely different in my new space and I know it will change my work somehow. I'm not sure how that will play out, as I'm still getting organized and haven't actually made any work there. But I have decided to take on the role of the observer in this case; I will endeavor to notice and possibly document but not fight any changes that appear in my artistic approach, interests and output.

I hope I will learn a great deal more about myself and my commitment to art, which continues to suprise me with its intensity and significance.

Next time: more NEW stuff! Check back for pictures--I promise!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

dreams and magic

I have been working through a very long, dark period, that began about a year ago (or maybe longer). Last June I was involved in a horseback riding accident that resulted in a concussion, a fractured zygomatic arch, a collapsed lung, four fractured ribs (all in my back just below my shoulderblade), and a head injury that left a five-inch scar down the left side of my face--I'm alive because I was wearing a good riding helmet that fit. I spent four days in John Muir Hospital's Head Trauma ICU, and sixteen weeks in a recovery that included sleeping sitting up, learning a variety of new ways to successfully get out of bed, and extensive research on ways to avoid sneezing and laughing. Even though the nurses in the hospital told me I apparently have a very high threshold of pain, my recovery spanned three Vicodin refills.

Because of my injuries, I missed both my MFA final review and my MFA commencement ceremony. My regalia hangs on the back of my bedroom door to this day, unworn except for a brief stint of self-pity, when, leaning against my medical-grade angle pillow for support, I put on my hood and mortarboard and had myself a good cry.

To make an extraordinarily long story short, the last 11 months have been the worst of my life. My mother passed away in February, my spouse continues to be underemployed, I am increasingly frustrated at seeing my career (art, as opposed to my job, which is web development) drift. I have no energy. I have dreams of being threatened by an attacker with a gun, a sniper who is not necessarily looking for me but is coming after whomever it strikes his fancy to get. I am just unlucky enough to run places he happens to go as well.

I don't quite know what this dream means, but I am beginning to understand it more. That I feel threatened or pursued or under stress somehow is clear; I think my friend Cynthia, a certified dream interpreter, would say it's significant that even though I'm located by the gunman, I am never shot--in fact, he only looks at me, never lifts his weapon, never poses a threat except in concept. I had this dream again last night, in fact, and while I went through the motions of hiding from the sniper, I knew in the dream both that he would find me and that he would not shoot. The fact that it's not me, personally, the sniper seeks, but instead he comes upon me by chance or my own "bad luck" each time seems significant as well.

I hope the luck is beginning to turn; a series of interesting interwoven occurrances seem to suggest that the Universe is once again coming to be on my side. I think perhaps it was waiting for me to commit to what I should have been committed to all along and now my karmic pat on the head (as opposed to the karmic thump on the head, which I also know well) is beginning to come through.

I hope this is the beginning of a much more pleasant story for me. I need to publically thank my friend and sister artist Corey Hitchcock for literally getting this process rolling by permitting me to participate in one of her imaginative and powerful projects. I encourage you to learn more about her Wicked Engine of Connected Desire, and look for it coming soon to a gallery near you.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Writing About Bushtits in a World Gone Mad

A lot has happened to me over the last six or eight months, much of it not good.

As a result, there are a lot of things I "should" be writing about.

For example, I should be writing about the disparity between the "haves" and "have nots" of the art world. I should be writing about the different interpretations of the words success and failure. I should be writing about Bay Area arts organizations and the point at which they lose sight of what really consitutes support for local artists, and how artists wind up caught in the middle and are the real losers. I should be writing about how video work is still greeted primarily with puzzlement in terms of what to do with it and how to get it out in front of the public. I should be writing about whether art for money is smart marketing or selling out.

But I don't want to write about that. I would much rather write about the bushtits.

Bushtits, in case you don't know, are small gray scruffy birds who are impossibly social and impossibly chattery. They're one of my two favorite birds, right up there with turkey vultures, in terms of my fascination with them. They live communally in groups until they pair off to mate; they spend the day flying together in straggling clumps from one tree or shrub to the next, chattering all the while. I got to know bushtits shortly after buying my house in Berkeley in 1993, when a group of them took up residence in a low fat shrub in my front yard. I noticed early on that they talk basically nonstop, and the closer you come to the bush they're in, the louder they chatter ... until you're right on top of them. And then, in unison, they all go completely silent, as if perhaps now that you're close enough to reach right in and grab one, you'll forget that they're there. You can literally look them in the eye at this point, and they'll sit silent and still, waiting for you to go on your way.

I learned later that the constant chattering is actually a defense mechanism, crafted so as to confuse a preditor who might be intent on picking off one of their number--the loud group conversation makes it difficult for a preditor to focus on any one bird, thus improving each bird's chances of survival. But that's not entirely relevant for this entry.

There is a colony of bushtits who live in a fat, shrubby tree in front of an apartment building on College Avenue. They've been hanging out there for at least two years, and when I walk to or from work I enjoy hearing their manic little voices--until, of course, someone comes out of the building or walks by on the sidewalk, at which point all the chattering goes silent for perhaps a second or two, then resumes. One morning, I swear they followed me to work, straggling from tree to bush behind me until we reached my office six blocks away.

But a few days ago, I noticed something different. The chatter comes from the opposite side of the street now; the bushtits have moved house.

The tree they have moved to is remarkably similar to the one they moved out of, not only in size and height but also in position--it too is in front of an apartment building, near the front door. And it is literally almost exactly across the street from the old home shrub. Yet the whole colony is there, still chattering madly, apparently pleased with their new living quarters.

I still walk past them nearly every day, only now I have to turn my attention to my right rather than to my left to see them. Sometimes I stop and talk to them, and listen to their focused silence as they take in my words. I tell them they are funny and cute and thank them for being my constant, a little bit of happy mad chatter in a world that for me for awhile now has been a difficult uphill climb. The bushtits seem fiercely optimistic, somehow. And that, much more so than writing about the good and evil of trying to be an artist in the world, has been very very good for me to take in.