Come to Our Senses Bench: A Group Art Saga

What you’re seeing in the photo above is the result of a powerful public art odyssey. It’s a free-form handmade mosaic bench that I ended up coordinating the tile work for. I am so thrilled to see it in position to be permanently installed in the new Visual and Performing Arts Complex at Cabrillo College in Aptos, CA, that all the descriptions of its making and meaning want to come tumbling out of me together.

What if I start with the inscription tile: “Come to our 5 Senses Bench, Created by over 375 students and staff of Cabrillo College between 2003 and 2007.”

Yes, you read right: 375+ artists contributed to this major oeuvre! And yes, it took four years to complete. And yes, it took 2+ years to move it to its ultimate site this week. Gather close, kiddies, and I’ll tell you the tale.

Early Years: Inspiration/Collaboration
In the Spring Semester of 2003, Sculpture instructor Jamie Abbott and Ceramics instructor Kathryn McBride cooked up a plan for their students to design, build and make tiles for what was originally a three-piece bench grouping with the theme of The Five Senses. The framework and smooth coating for one main part was what actually got built by the Sculpture students and then passed to Ceramics students.

The semester ended soon after, and this gray baby elephant of a bench still needed lots of continuing effort to design, make, glaze, fire and attach tiles, not to mention to sort, store and edit the tiles in all stages of completion. Many a summer work party that year spent most of its time attempting to define and refine the Five Senses theme and to reconcile specific tile images and shapes with the curves of the bench surface. The project seem to loom larger and become more complicated the more it was worked on.

In time, the original bench enthusiasts took different classes, graduated, transferred to other schools, got jobs, moved on. Work on The Bench languished. By 2005 the tarp we had carefully kept over it had gone away and the palette it sat on was showing signs of sagging. The work “parties” had dwindled to me and Kathryn applying a tile or two and wringing our hands over the vastness and confusion of it all. Here’s an early shot in which the bench looks more like the granite expansiveness of Half Dome and the tiles look like lichen growths.

Car Crash Epiphany
This is where the plot takes an unexpected turn, pun intended. One early morning in July, 2005, my 20-year-old son Roger crashed our Honda Civic sideways into a tree on Highway 1 near downtown Santa Cruz. No drugs or alcohol, just a bit too much downhill speed, some faulty brake work done only a day or two before, and a lot of OC donut spinning because of losing traction crossing the railroad tracks. He was mildly scratched; the car was clearly totaled. Gives me the willies to think of it even now because there was a bit of a Sleeping-Beauty-pricks-her-finger-on-a-spindle curse fulfillment surrounding that crash. Sleeping Beauty did not die, because the original spell was amended, she just fell into a deep sleep…and Roger just got a wake up call from the Universe.

And so did I. I was moved to eliminate all extraneous activities from my life. The idle-chatter coffees, the stray civic involvements, the leftover obligations: all gone! I told Kathryn I only wanted to do what had the most heart for me: ceramics and finishing that bench. She said yes! and thereby graciously provided the conduit to the willing hands of her three classes of students for what turned out to be a couple of years.

The Middle Mash-Up Years
Over the next four semesters I introduced the bench project to 13 Beginning Handbuilding Ceramics classes and invited enthusiastic students to brainstorm image ideas and to make tiles for each of the Five Senses. The inventiveness of such a large, changing group of all ages and sensibilities contributed mightily to the wonderful wildness evident in the whole piece. There are stories to go with each one. Some of them I know: that realistic cigarette in the Smell area? The maker, a former smoker, told me he would always know where his last smoke was.

This one, also from the Smell section, is by a repeat ceramic student who prided herself on having a tile in each Sense, all involving fingers. And it was only after her hand image tile was placed in Touch did we all discover it had six fingers!

While the first crowds worked, I set about clarifying the imagery on the bench and found myself reluctantly chipping off and patching up some irrelevant and damaged tiles from the very early time when we were applying every tile we could get our hands on regardless of whether it served the overall themes in any way. Man, I hated creating MORE gray places to fill, but I can send up a silent thank you prayer for that now as it completely aided in the clarification of the project.

Bringing it Into the Station
After all those semesters of massive tile production by so many willing hands, including addressing the dividers between the Senses areas (what I call the River Tiles) and groveling around on our sides tiling the bottom edge in what I think is a rather orderly and upholstery-like border, it finally seemed to be getting covered. There were more tiles than grayness!

In the final semester, a whole new level of tile generation arose. Up until this point, all the tiles made fit somewhere in the correct area, but this was no longer so. What was needed now were tiles of very specific shapes and curvatures. It was also clear that in lots of places the gaps between tiles were too large, so we began to make and sprinkle in repetitive filler tiles: tiny candies for Taste, musical notes for Hearing and so on. At this point we were bringing the wet clay out to the bench and cutting and shaping all the tiles to fit a custom location, including allowing for shrinkage! The last gaps were closed by some special luster-fired tiles and finally I attached what was clearly the last one. It was grouted and sealed the week after Spring ’07 finals.

The Behemoth Stays Behind
The whole time the bench was being created, so was the grand new Visual and Performing Arts Complex. We knew we would wait for The Move, scheduled for sometime in 2008, in order to place it in the new digs somewhere. Well, moves are tough, calling up major doses of the unexpected as they do. We were 30 years in the old location and the new location was not quite done, so you might begin to imagine what came up in transition. Selecting a place for The Bench was ‘way down on the To Do list for a long, long time. Occasionally someone would ask me about it; occasionally I would go back to that part of campus, sit on it and pat it and thank it for its patience (and gather my own up again.)

But, now that The 5 Senses Bench is right here in our Art Village, around us again in our day-to-day, it is particularly fun to watch new crops of students discovering this very wild mosaic sculpture because these are the folks who never saw it under construction and never saw it sitting around, uninstalled. They are encountering it as it was always intended to be encountered: as a wondrous, marvelous, engaging, the-more-you-look-the-more-you-see piece of public art. That is so true, that I plan to post a Tile Of the Week here on the blog for awhile, to let me get to know it anew. A Tile and A Story, should keep me busy all over again.

In order to write this very l-o-n-g blog post, I have been looking at all the photos taken from the beginning in 2003 to this week. This last one, posted below, I had utterly forgotten. It’s me on the left and Kathryn’s hands holding the tool, in the first Ceramics Department Bench Work Party. We are placing the first tiles, which also happened to be mine. What I love about this photo is the group’s intensity of focus and the active working hands, because those two things symbolize the whole wonderful mess.

Glaze Transparency: Clear As Mud

Ceramic test tile glaze palette


I have a passion for ceramic test tiles: looking at them, using them for reference and making them. It comes from being a lifelong collector of paint chips, a lover of color theory books and classes, and a plyer of other media before I came to ceramics. I’ve played with paints, watercolors, colored pencils, even with translucent or transparent papers. And while there are color interaction similarities among media, I’m here to testify that the understanding of ceramic surface decorating materials, especially glazes, is in another universe altogether. As usual, I have a few thoughts about that.

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Helping An Old Friend

Students using mosaic bench


Once upon a time…¬†

a whole bunch of Sculpture and Ceramics students made a large freeform mosaic bench. It took four years and I was ringmistress for the last two of them. After¬†another two years it was installed in its permanent location in the new Art Quad at Cabrillo College.¬†That was seven years ago as of this writing. It’s weathered a few winters, droughts, preschool field trips, freeform mime-dance performances and hundreds of lounging students. It’s a landmark and a meeting place. A sentinel and a touchstone. And, one day, a tile broke off…

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Thursday’s Tile: Public Art Out in Public

As we wind down to this last intended Thursday’s Tile post, we will get to enjoy some shots of the Five Senses Bench in use in the setting of the still-new Art Complex quad area of Cabrillo College.

It is safe to say that very few of the students presently attending know the history of this artwork, because it took eight semesters to be completed and five before it was installed. Instead, they are free to enjoy it for exactly what it presents itself as: a groovy, arty stopping place, especially on a sunny spring day. They are now writing the continuing history of the Bench.

The young man above, for example, was lost in his music and gazing at what’s called The Art Glen, a wild bowl of cypress trees and large bushes, likely dating from the days of the Sesnon family’s summer home.

I wish I had photos of the environmental dance troupe which used the bench as a prop at last October’s Cabrillo College 50th Anniversary Open House. They posed and leaped and shimmied all over it. Not likely to happen again soon, at least in such a trained way.

Another missed photo op was when the nearby preschool took a field trip to the Bench. Those tykes were crawling, exclaiming and pointing to everything they recognized, and being directed to new imagery by their teachers. (Wonder if they did see the pile of poo at preschooler eye-level in the Smell area?)

All this is what should happen to public art. It is looked at, used, commented on, photographed, adapted and experienced. It can also be graffiti-ed, “harvested” or in other ways defiled, although artworks are generally left alone, and ceramic tile is pretty bulletproof. (My dad said the life-sized statue of a Confederate soldier that stands in the town square of his tiny southern Alabama hamlet usually had a cigarette inserted in his mouth. When I was mentioning this to my mom, she said the statue of The Thinker at her Wisconsin high school did too. This bench has its own cigarette already, though…Whew.)

Instead of mooning over unique lost shots, here’s another more familiar sight: an elegantly perched reader, carried away by her book.

Plenty of times, too, the bench is a meeting place. It is sited in a crossroads location, yet off the traffic pathways, making it easy to locate and yet still have a relatively un-jostled private conversation, like I found these two friends below having. It just might be a defensible space. You can see how much room is around it.

It feels safe enough to stretch out and nap on, as in this completely impromptu shot below. With two distinct sides, sharing a common back and one connecting end, who knew it is also a horizontal love seat? And it’s up off that damp grass. (Although watch out if has rained recently, the back of each curvy seat does not drain!)

The loungers were not even disturbed when I asked a student I had not seen in many a day, LM, to point to the red onions and head of garlic tile he made for the Taste area. This thing will outlast us all, and every semester we told potential tile-makers they could bring their great-grandchildren to see it. LM must have really listened because he’s back sooner than that.

There’s no telling how many tiles are attached to this baby elephant. Thousands upon thousands, is my guess. But I can tell you accurately the twenty-six posts of Thursday’s Tile stack up like this: Hearing: 2, Sight: 2, Smell: 3, Touch: 5, Taste: 7, and General: 7, including this one.

And I can count one tile maker who stands out among the many hundreds, just because she worked long and hard all over this behemoth. From the “upholstery” pattern bottom edge, to the title tiles in each area, to design advice, to grouting the thing, she was there. You know her as the enthusiastic, opinionated, unsung “DP.” And there she is “standing out” right below.

When I was with DP last week taking this photo of her, she casually but earnestly said something like, “This bench needs some more things around it. It’s too bare over here.” The original plan did call for three pieces, two flatter table or hassock shapes beside the bench, but the bench proved enormously enough. At least until now.

DP drew in the dirt next to the Bench with her foot, outlining a shape, and her hands described an approximate silhouette. She talked of its construction and of it having both larger and planned-out tiles. She said she and her art partner would build the frame. She said it could be finished in place, right there in situ. She said there also needed to be a “carpet” of horizontal stepping stones around it all. She said.

I listened. I got kinda excited. I said OK!

We have plans…and as soon as they begin to actualize, I will be back, blogging about that whole process. In the meantime, I have a tiny vacation lined out. Thanks for reading Thursday’s Tile and the rest of Soul Ceramics.

Thursday’s Tile: Delayed But That’s OK

I have no idea if anyone really waits up for me to get around to publishing Thursday’s Tile on Thursdays. If you do, you can go to bed now…. 

Technical photo problems, a dead camera battery, a really weird photo upload link on “Blogger in Draft”…one I have never seen, which will not let me Browse my own photos (?!?!?!) and definitely not enough time to solve these things AND write of the awesome news that arrived just today.

So, it’s fine to wait another week. I’ll keep you in suspense.

In the meantime, enjoy this single photo of the insides of the Five Senses Bench being built by the sculpture class seven years ago. After seven years, we can wait seven days.

See you for the rousing Finale next Thursday.

Thursday’s Tile: A Matter of Taste

Here at soon-to-end Thursday’s Tile, we’re exploring the world of sensation tile by tile as depicted on the Five Senses Bench. You can see the whole bench in person installed in the new Visual and Performing Arts complex at Cabrillo College in Aptos, CA. Please do if you’re in the area!

Today we have a tasty photo essay of tiles from the Taste Area.

Let’s start with that graphic tile up above about things gone wrong: as in, taste so bad the spoon is refused, reversed and sticking out of the down-turned mouth by the handle. How odd.

Our tongue has taste buds that sense sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory (or umami.) And apparently they have just discovered another — my favorite — fat! But whether we enjoy these flavors or not has to do more with smell. (And I do tip my hat to the fact that actual eating enjoyment might include texture and temperature, etc.)

We’ve talked about a few possibly reviling Tastes in past posts: the grubs, raw meat and blood lust of the hunt come to mind. The following two tiles enjoy a wide range of gustatory opinion: Sardines and Okra.

I personally enjoy these two sometimes. Fresh sardines are wonderful, and stir-fried, heat-seared okra is not slimy. It might be a matter of preparation and the fine micro-flavors that professional tasters of every kind are sensitive to. I know those nuances exist because ground coffee smells like tuna to me. Same esters or something.

Now fried eggs have a gag-me factor –it’s that runny yoke more than the flavor — but the two in this tile are SO beautifully done and are a perfect example of one artist influencing another. The eggs were already completed and attached when, a semester or two later, along comes the next artist who felt some bacon was needed. She even fashioned the bacon to fit a very tight and specific triangular space. When one tile is purposely placed next to another to create narrative articulation, the whole truly becomes greater than its parts.

Here are the label tiles for Taste, made by the thoroughly into it all and unsung, DP.

Notice the surround of beet, watermelon, avocado, candy corn and snickerdoodle cookie on the bottom right!

The Taste Area is nearly as big a Hearing, Smell and Touch put together, but it was the hands-down easiest to make tiles for. I would merely have to say to all those classes made primarily of young adults, “What are you hungry for? Make that!” and it happened. One semester all four classes worked on Taste tiles only, that side of the bench was SO expansive.

Here’s another melange of melt-in-your-mouth goodies, a complex passage found on the left front curve.

Find these: gummi fish, chocolate kisses, olives, black-eyed peas, more candy corn, pink marshmallow peeps, mushrooms, wrapped candies, a tea bag and Cheetos. Oh, and what about that asparagus and cantaloupe and french bread?

Contrarians abound, and one of them thought a Don’t Eat sign on a bench full of food was funny. And it is.

So quit dripping your snack on your keyboard and come along now as we move to our last Taste tile. It references both a comestible and artistic taste: the Campbell’s Soup Can(s) made more famous as art than food by the infamous Andy Warhol.

We have an example of (biased) Bad Taste…at least as greeted in 1962. It is truly from an era that ushered in a new sensibility and many were just not ready for it. But Warhol persisted (and how) and here we have one absolute icon of Pop Art, which might seem derivative and even a bit pedestrian today. Tastes change! But we knew that.

So this is a wrap on the photo essays for each sense area of the bench. If you started with this one, but are curious about the other four, click on Hearing, Smell, Touch or Sight.

Next week, to conclude Thursday’s Tile: what happens to public art in use, an up close examination and summation.

Thursday’s Tile: I Spy With My Little Eye

And if you have an eye like this bloodshot mutant double-wide, maybe you only need one! What follows is a look at a few of the tiles on the Sight Area of the Five Senses Bench, the only completely flat side of the project and the one you can most easily take in in a glance. It hasn’t gotten a lot of coverage here at Thursday’s Tile, for some reason. A few of the other posts about tiles from this area are of the purple cow, the braille tiles, a holiday essay and one of the body parts of each sense area.

It is natural that there are a lot of eyes in the Sight Area, just as there were a lot of hands on the Touch Area. But just as Touch morphed into Feeling, Sight morphs quickly into Insight and the Mind’s Eye. It comes from imagination (like the purple cow or the doubled eyeball) and inner vision, like SR’s lovely rendition of the third eye below. Many of the rest of the eyes are Buddha’s or the Eye of Horus. Inner eye awake and aware; person meditating, dreaming, seeing inside.

Below are DP’s label tiles for Sight, and at their bottom is a glimpse of Superman, the Man of Steel with the X-ray Vision. But wait, he has many vision powers: “x-ray, heat-emitting, telescopic, infrared and microscopic.” I did not know that and bet you did not either.

Maybe Superman’s heat-emitting vision melted the clock tile to fit the top curve. Regardless, it is a take-off on Salvador Dali’s most famous work, The Persistence of Memory,

which just so happens to be one of those images that “once seen cannot be unseen,” and functions as a largely recognized cultural reference, much like Munch’s The Scream. I just can’t tell if the hands read 10 after 6 or 2:30….and the correct time probably does not matter in the slightest if your clock is limp and drooling.

Above we have RJ’s nearly famous hand, forming the modern-day hand sign for PEACE — or is that “Make it two beers?” It was originally planned for the Touch area, joining all the other hands, but even the maker did not notice it had six fingers until it was glazed and ready to be attached. We laughed long and hard about that and put it on the Sight side, both as a reference to all kinds of sign language and as a visual pun on ourselves and anyone else who really sees what they’re looking at.

The next three tiles have to do with noticing how the world has changed in even the relatively short time since this bench was conceived (2003), worked on with concerted effort (2005) and finished (2007.) In that time, we have transitioned from using film in cameras to all digital. Film is now exotic stuff, for photog students or….film-makers! But here’s a lovely travel series of a sunset somewhere, nonetheless. What used to be a symbol of taking pictures is now a smartly framed quadtych.

And then there is the old incandescent light bulb, symbol of the bright idea. Will the cool white spiral CF bulb ever quite do that, even though it is the brighter idea of the two? (And those teeny holiday lights are now all LEDs!)

And while the shape of TVs has morphed to the high def flat screen, and satellite/cable is the norm over rabbit ears/antennae, at least the broadcast nonsense is still just as colorfully effervescent as this tile.

But here is something that has not gone away, even though there were dire predictions with the advent of VCRs and DVD players: the movie theater. This tile is a nostalgic rendition of the actual marquee of the Surf Theater on Irving Street in San Francisco, which operated for almost 60 years in some capacity and wound up being an important refuge for seekers of art films and even employment for some of us. If you think about it, the movies engage so many of our senses, including those of imagination and feeling (emotional senses!) How about gratitude? Thanks Surf Theater! Thanks KM for this tile and ES for the silver stars and full moon around it. Thanks.