Saturday, December 22, 2012

Looking Back at 2012

The year began with the death, on New Year's Day, of Betty Snowden, shown on the left at Thanksgiving with my wife Kathy, her daughter. Born in 1913, Betty died a few weeks short of her 98th birthday, having willed herself to live through the holidays and see her grandchildren. Betty spent part of WW II in the Congo, broadcasting in French. After the war, she married Jolly Snowden, who she'd met in the Congo. An All-American football player for the Miami Hurricanes, Jolly helped build Ryder Trucks in the East and later in California. They lived across the street from us. Jolly died in 1989, but Betty lived on, active in the North Berkeley Community Center and as a bridge player. She was an exemplary grandmother to her numerous grandchildren. I miss her.

In January, partly as a 65th-birthday present to myself, I went east, spending time in DC, where I visited the National Gallery, a perennial favorite, shown in the photo on the right. I then flew to Miami to see my friend May, her husband Rod, and her daughter Asia. I'd never been to Miami, which proved to be a balmy 74 (as compared to DC's 29). When it went down to 70, they complained about the cold! May kindly showed me the sights, including South Beach and a gorgeous 1920s mansion. The trip made up for a botched one in November, when I couldn't get a flight from Charlotte to Miami, so ended up flying back to SF. This was a more leisurely visit, for which I was grateful. Downtown Miami, where I stayed, is cosmopolitan - good restaurants and a great mix of people. South Beach, where Asia lives and works, is like that, too - a real destination. I've known May since the late 1960s, a long friendship.

In late 2011, my friends Yosh, Yuki, Brad, and I launched a new SF-focused design blog, TraceSF.com. I've written for it several times. One thing I covered was a lecture by the Boston architect Rodolfo Machado at Wurster Hall at Berkeley. Best known in California for renovating the old Getty Museum in Malibu, his master plan for the UCSF research campus at Mission Bay, entirely disregarded by that institution, would have made that unfortunate setting a zillion times better. He told me after the lecture that he'd never gone back. I don't blame him.

At some point in the late winter or early spring, I started weaving, using a Saori two-shaft loom, shown on the right. My teacher is Lynn Harris of Saori Berkeley. I really like it. I began by doing very simple things, just to get the hang of it. Weaving turned out to be a bit like writing - at least, like writing as I do it. The Saori loom is sort of the iMac of looms, too - it lends itself to improvisation and it's very forgiving of error. Over the summer, I bought one and had it converted to four shafts - an added level of complexity that I'll be addressing in January. More on weaving later - it's been a big theme for me in 2012. My daughter Elizabeth, who suggested the studio to me, joined in and took to it. Soon she was making her own warps and producing the raw material for several items of clothing. Sewing those clothes is her next project. The weaving in the photo is the simplest kind: back and forth with a shuttle, making bands of color. I did several like that until I felt comfortable enough with the loom to experiment. 

In May, we went east for a family reunion of sorts occasioned by the graduation of our niece Roz from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA. (She's shown seated on the left; our third son Ross, a political strategist in DC, is towering over me on my left.) It's a really nice college town. We stayed in Danville, 15 minutes away, at The Doctor's Inn, a bed and breakfast was a former doctor's residence and clinic. It's a big old house and the family that owns it, including "three little doorstep girls," as Kathy memorably called them, made us feel welcome. I also visited with my high-school classmate Chris, who I hadn't seen since he attended our wedding in 1974. Another Bucknell graduate, he now lives across the river from Lewisburg, in a house on five acres. This captures one truth about central Pennsylvania - it's about half the price of Berkeley. Chris, who worked as a postman, noted that he could afford to retire there on a postman's pension. In the photo above, I'm wearing the hat that I bought earlier that day for $8 in a store on the Lewisburg main drag. Needed it, sitting in the sun at Roz's ceremony. Then Kathy, her sister Laurie (second from left), and I drove to Connecticut to stay with their sister Lynn (sitting below me) and visit their cousin Shirley in New York City and our friends Linnea and Bill, their daughter Allison, and their granddaughters at the beach house in Milford on Long Island Sound. (Yes, it survived Hurrican Sandy, but only just.)

In June, I went back east, this time to New York City, where I saw the Keith Haring show at the Brooklyn Art Museum - a revelation, in fact, as Haring is really strong graphically, with a much greater range than I thought. I was impressed. I took a Sunday to go visit my cousin Robert in Red Hook, NY (not Red Hook, Brooklyn), getting a ride in his XK-E, meeting his family, and visiting Olanna, a 19th-century artist's house with beautiful views of the Hudson Valley. I took the train to Rhinecliff and my cousin picked me up. That's one thing I love about the East - you can mostly ditch the car. Miraculously, New York City was really pleasant, not oppressive, as I'd feared it would be. The BAM visit, which included a stop to see my friends Andrew and Davina, and their growing family, was my first trip to Brooklyn since I went to the Coney Island Aquarium with my dad when I was 13. It was thanks to Andrew's good directions that I made it to BAM from Brooklyn Tech, where I heard him give a short talk on his new book, Tubes. (We're talking Andrew Blum here.) BAM is definitely the most transit-friendly museum in New York City.

In July, I started weaving using what my teacher called a tapestry technique. This was my opening move, which reminded me of Mark Rothko, in a way. It was slow going, but I really liked it. This piece, which we'll revisit at the end, grew to be about 10 feet long. July is famous in the Bay Area for bad weather, but it's become our "new normal" for the once-balmier period from late spring to early fall: long expanses of fog-shrouded cold are now briefly punctuated by a few days of sun and warmth. This is not how I define "summer," but I guess I'll have to get used to it. In this period, I was working on an essay on Berkeley, campus and city, with my friends Dick and Emily, commissioned by Dick's friend - now mine, too - Anthony, in Singapore. This was undoubtedly the slowest paper I ever wrote, so I owe thanks to Anthony for putting up with us. (I also wrote reviews in 2012 of Jennifer Fletcher's SFMOMA show on Bucky Fuller's influence on Bay Area design and designers, published in May in Architect's Newspaper, and of Jill Stoner's Toward a Minor Architecture.)

The Jill Stoner book review appeared in September in Arcade, the Seattle design magazine edited by Kelly Rodriguez. Here it is on the right, hot off the press. I really like Arcade - admire its backers for keeping it going at a very high editorial standard. It's one my several causes. Another is the 2430 Arts Alliance, which supports University Press Books and Musical Offering in Berkeley - I'm on the board. The Alliance sponsors concerts, readings, and other public outreach programs that draw people to the bookstore and the CD shop, both located at 2430 Bancroft Ave. in Berkeley, across from Zellerbach Hall. Well worth a visit.

Speaking of UPB, my daughter and I went there in October to see a remarkable short film, La jetée, by the late Chris Marker. It's the film on which every time-travel epic ever since is based. It's only 26 minutes, but it's great. His other films are supposed to be really good, too, but I haven't seen them yet. (I skipped early August, when I went to San Diego for a few days to thaw out and got a really interesting work assignment that will come out in January. More on that next year!)

In November, my second son John visited us for two weeks, including Thanksgiving. It was good to see him - I hadn't laid eyes on him, other than via Skype video, for 18 months. (In May 2011, I saw him in Birmingham, England, where he did his M.A. He now lives in Dudley, a town of 300,000 people in the Black Country - coal country - nearby.) My oldest son Michael and his family had meanwhile moved into their newly renovated house a few blocks away. They were living in a rental, so this is a good move. My grandson is now at Black Pine Circle, which John and his brother Ross attended a generation before. Full circle, as they say. John did his M.A. thesis on social enterprises and now works as a fundraising and communications consultant.

In December, I went back to New York City, where I met up with Christine and Sally, old family friends, and went to the O.K. Harris Gallery in SoHo to see a show of the summer work of San Francisco artist Ward Schumaker. I met the owner, Ethan Karp, and bought two of Schumaker's paintings, including "Ship of State," shown left. In between purchases, I heard from the artist and ended up having dinner with him and his wife, the artist Vivienne Flesher. That was fun! I also saw the moving Ferdinand Hodler show at the Neue Galerie, along with Picasso at the Guggenheim and old favorites at MoMA. (The early modern show hadn't opened yet, unfortunately.) I then returned to SF to labor on my work project, a complicated piece with a lot of moving parts and a very compressed schedule. I'm always in awe of how these come together, thanks to the award-winning team I work with at Gensler's publications group in San Francisco.

In December, I also finished my 10-foot-long tapestry weaving project, worked on  for two hours a session over successive Saturday mornings. This section is about two-thirds of the way along, where it transitions from red to blue. I also began experimenting with more complex forms. I wrote earlier that weaving is like writing. It reminds me of writing poetry, especially sonnets, in that each line of a poem anticipates the next as much as it relates to what came before. The poet Frederick Seidel noted in a Paris Review interview that he might start off a poem wanting to depict someone with grey eyes, but the poem doesn't want the grey and it may not even want the eyes. Weaving in this manner is a bit like that. Four-shaft weaving is more like my work project: a specific form and a lot of moving parts. Story of my life. Meanwhile, best wishes for the New Year.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Cal's new Helios building

I walked past the almost-finished Helios Building this morning (22 August 2012). Designed by the San Francisco office of the national design/ planning firm, SmithGroupJJR, Helios hugs the street wall along  Oxford and Hearst. Its long, narrow site leaves room for open space and additional development. The Oxford facade benefits from the narrowness and from a well-executed curtain wall (below) that continues on the inner-facing south facade. The Hearst facade is longer and, with a repetitive grid of punched windows, less interesting. The beige color of the stone, although subtly variegated, adds to the monotony.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The MFA Grads at BAM

In the back, the work of Brett Walker; in the front, of Amy Rathbone.
Readers of 94708 may remember a visit I made to the Richmond Field Station in the fall to see the work in progress of the 2012 MFA students at Cal. Two weekends ago, I went to BAM to see the 42nd annual MFA graduate exhibition.

Kari Marboe in front of one of her text-integrating works.
While there, I ran into one of the artists, Kari Marboe. The work she showed in the fall drew on her family, but she told us she was interested in a book by Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse. At BAM, she explained that the challenge of exhibiting her work at museum scale affected her MFA work. It led her to work at two different scales - the micro-scale of newspaper display ads and the macro-scale of billboards, for example, rendered in wall-mounted photos like the one above. Here's a display ad:

Display ad by Kari Marboe.
To give them museum-appropriate heft, Marboe exhibited these ads as a series of Donald Judd-like stacks of newspapers (in this case, the East Bay Express):

Kari Marboe: stacked newspapers with display ads.
The narrative her MFA project incorporates began at the museum entry:

Kari Marboe: introductory text, BAM entry.
When I visited her in the fall, Amy Rathbone had taken over an entire room at the field station, where she was experimenting with malleable materials that could be compressed and that would make sounds as they expanded and with light and shadow along the walls and ceiling. These elements were also present in the BAM gallery, no small feat.


Amy Rathbone: BAM installation, mixed media.
Even more conceptually ambitious, the sculptor Frank Emilio Marquez-Leonard used duct tape to outline the volume required for his piece, 20/20, and then published a PhotoShop image of it, along with instructions for its construction, in the exhibit catalogue. 


Frank Emilio Marquez-Leonard: denoted volume for 20/20.
Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck works from old amateur family films to create tableaux that have a narrative quality that's either all appearance or perhaps makes the point that anything figurative is inherently if inadvertently a narrative. I didn't meet him at the field station, but was struck by his bookcase-full of metal-encased film reels.

Video installation by Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck.
Jennie Smith is an accomplished, graphically facile artist who rose to the occasion of the exhibit by making a wall-size piece that riffs on he Pacific garbage patch in a composition that, to me, simultaneously invokes Chinese and Japanese paintings.


Jennie Smith: Untitled, watercolor, graphite pencil on paper.
One of the most interesting presentations at the field station was Kari Orvik's discussion of tintypes, a 19th-century form of photography that she used to document the aftermath of the San Bruno gas-pipe explosion. A photographer of neighborhoods, she exhibited video stills she made using a camera obscura and other photographic processes.


One of Kari Orvik's photographs.
Behind hangings from Amy Rathbone's This, That and Other are the photos of Brett Walker, an artist who, as I noted in my earlier post, often makes himself the hero of his images. Although they sometimes depict domestic scenes involving his family, others take on the aggrandizing, cult-of-personality aspect of propaganda. I believe this is meant ironically.

On the walls and table: photographs by Brett Walker. In front, hangings from Amy Rathbone, This, That and Other.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Analog Books, RIP


The last time I went into Analog Books, I noticed that the shelves weren't being restocked. Last weekend, I saw this sign in the window: shorter hours, for lease. Soon, there will be no more bookstores in North Berkeley. I'll miss Analog, which - despite its small size - had a really thoughtful selections of books, including NYRB Classics. I tried to patronize it whenever I went by, but clearly there weren't enough customers to make it work. Really too bad.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Vernal Equinox

A sure sign of spring on Arch Street: the first blossom on the pygmy cherry tree in front of my house. Despite the signs, it's been cold this week. The rain, which seemed interminable last week, has held off. We needed it - and probably need more - to get the Sierra snow pack to a decent level, but it makes everyday life more difficult when it's happening.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Early Spring

Spring, possibly a false spring, arrives at 94708 in February. The plum trees and numerous bushes are the first sign. I say "false," because warmer weather is often followed by a brutal period of much colder weather before it warms up again and the cherry trees blossom. The whole climatic sequence has been somewhat out of kilter, though. A colleague in Chicago theorizes that it's a month out of sync with what we remember. I'm not sure if this is true or not. Compared to last year, it's been a dry, mild winter. We usually put up curtains between the hallway and the main rooms in the house to stop the escape of warm air into the maw of the hallway and also cut the draft. We haven't done so this year, because it hasn't been cold enough to warrant it. We'll pay for the dry winter in the summer, probably, since our water comes from the snow pack. There's probably still a surplus from last year, which was over the top, but if we have another dry winter next year, we'll be in trouble. Meanwhile, of course, it's easier to get back and forth without a deluge. When it rains here, it often pours - Pacific storms that blow in and, whipped by the wind, come down in sheets, making umbrellas less effective and sometimes useless. That hasn't really happened this year.